A Coaching Power Tool Created by Suzanne Martyn-Jones
(Team Coaching/Team Coach, CANADA)
Have you ever experienced a group or team discussion that was dominated by Champion vs. Challenge “no”, “we can’t”, or “we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work”? It’s one of the reasons that group projects have a bad reputation and individuals often prefer to work alone than as part of a team. These types of conversations can feel counter-productive, especially when the team is tasked to be innovative or solve a problem. “Working collaboratively is a process that involves a group of people to reach the goal,”however it is difficult to reach the goal together when discussions are dominated by obstacles instead of solutions. “Destructive dynamics can also undermine collaborative efforts. We’ve all seen team members withhold information, pressure people to conform, avoid responsibility (and) cast blame.”When behaviors like this occur, it can cause inequalities within the team where some voices are heard, and others are not. Since everyone’s contribution to a team is important, there needs to be a way for individuals to share their thoughts in a less confrontational way and to make sure that no one feels silenced. One such way is to make individuals aware of their tendency to ‘challenge’ the group’s ideas by focusing on the barriers versus ‘champion’ their own ideas by anchoring them to an area of value. The purpose is to make sure that individuals feel comfortable expressing their thoughts without doing so in a negative context. By switching from a ‘challenge’ to a ‘champion’ mindset, a more positive environment can be created, and teams will inevitably work better together.
Champion vs. Challenge Explanation
According to Heidi Grant, a social psychologist and author of the book Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You, “when faced with a new challenge or idea, many of us react by getting into the details and focusing on obstacles. We ruminate on the problem and its many facets rather than thinking of ways around it. This predisposition gets compounded when we work with other people – there’s a social element that often exacerbates a group’s inclination to think in negative terms.”Those who focus too much on the problem tend to ‘challenge’ the suggestions of other team members who might have decent ideas. If there are only a few challenges in a group, the team will label them ‘road blockers’ but still work around them. But when more of the team are challengers, then group collaboration can come to a grinding halt. Either way, the ‘challenge’ mindset is not empowering for the individual who is doing it. While they might be voicing their opinion on why something can’t be achieved or why it shouldn’t be tackled, they aren’t helping the team to find a solution or come up with anything new.
There are benefits to having team members willing to raise issues and voice their concerns. “But when your team is overly focused on finding problems instead of solving them, it can be detrimental to productivity and morale. `Talent is attracted to possibility, opportunity, and agency,’ says Liane Davey, author of The Good Fight. `You will lose great people if your team is always talking about why it can’t, rather than about how it can.’ And yet, says Heidi Grant, the best teams balance the two.” A ‘challenge’ mindset is predominantly focused on the problem and has difficulty seeing beyond the reasons why something can’t be done. It is frustrating to be on a team with members who ‘challenge’ because they can’t see past the issues.
When an individual takes a ‘champion’ approach, they come into the team environment with something of value to fighting for, or more diplomatically, to debate. When they raise obstacles, it is in the context of trying to improve an area that they strongly believe in. “Most people want to make the world a better place and given how much time jobs consume; people are more motivated when they can achieve their altruistic goals through their work.” As a ‘champion’, they want to be solution-orientated and need the help of others on the team to achieve results. Since they can’t just tell others what to do, they have to influence their perspective. “People have to care about achieving a goal, whether because they stand to gain extrinsic rewards, like recognition, pay, and promotions; or intrinsic rewards, such as satisfaction and a sense of meaning.”By showing the rest of the team the meaning behind their passion, the ‘champion’ can get them to be equally motivated.
It’s a misconception to believe that “if team members like each other and maintain harmony, the team will be successful. Of course, we prefer working with people we like, but liking or hanging out together doesn’t ensure great teamwork. In fact, a little discord may be helpful at times, if team members feel comfortable speaking up and can disagree constructively. The difference is that the ‘challenge’ approach is not a constructive way to disagree because it only focuses on what can’t be done. The ‘champion’ approach provides an opportunity to share possibilities with other team members to get them on board. It is also harder to shut down a ‘champion’ because they are driven by a certain set of hard to dispute values.
Applying the ‘champion’ approach allows a team member to talk about both obstacles and opportunities in an area of focus. While these are just examples, a team member can choose to ‘champion’ any one of the following:
To determine an area to ‘champion’, here are some questions to ask:
- What are your customers experiencing? How can you better serve them?
- Is your organization sustainable for years to come? What can be done to improve?
- Are you educating others to the highest standard? How can you raise the bar?
- How is the community impacted by your organization?
- Are you achieving the growth that you should be?
- Is your organization diverse enough? How can it be more inclusive?
- Does your company impact the environment positively or negatively?
- How can your organization be more innovative? Are you thinking about the future?
Imagine a team that has 4 members. One is the ‘champion’ for the customer; one is the ‘champion’ for innovation; one is the ‘champion’ for sustainability and the last one is the ‘champion’ for diversity. When given a problem to solve, each team member will come at it with a different viewpoint. Instead of a ‘challenge’ mindset, they will apply the ‘champion’ approach and advocate for the area that they represent. The result of this should be better collaboration, as every voice will be heard, and the solution will address all areas.
An individual should be clear about the area they are advocating for when applying the ‘champion’ approach. If they advocate for too many things, they will be less persuasive at debating their points. These areas need to roll up to the values of the workplace to make sure there is alignment. It is a best practice for organizations to develop and communicate their mission, vision, and values, but many “underestimate their ability to build staff support. A simple effort to reach out to employees can turn them into champions of new ideas.” Where a ‘challenge’ mindset is quick to dismiss ideas that appear too complex, a ‘champion’ mindset is open to ideas regardless of the difficulty if they are in alignment. The individual ‘champion’ will feel even more comfortable speaking up because they have the support of the organization.
Coaching can play an integral role in helping with team dynamics. “The foundation of every great team is a direction that energizes, orients, and engages its members. Teams cannot be inspired if they don’t know what they’re working toward and don’t have explicit goals.” In facilitating the group, a coach can connect the team with the bigger mandate and make sure everyone is on the same page. Since the ‘challenge’ mindset is often displayed behind closed doors when the team is not working together as a cohesive group, a coach can call out the individuals who ‘challenge’ and encourage them to ‘champion’ something instead.
A coach can also ensure that the right environment is established for the team, particularly when it comes to making sure every team member is comfortable voicing their opinion. “Leaders can’t see and know everything, so they need team members to be willing to speak up, acknowledge mistakes, ask questions and offer dissenting opinions. That can only happen if there is adequate psychological safety. When Google studied their teams, they found psychological safety to be the number one predictor of team performance. Leaders can promote psychological safety by, for example, admitting when they didn’t know something or thanking a team member who offers a view different than their own.”Different viewpoints are invaluable in coming up with new ideas and solving problems. Diverse teams can share these viewpoints if they are comfortable expressing them.
When it comes to resistance, there are bound to be challenges when teams are trying to work through difficult scenarios together, even with the ‘champion’ approach. “When you encounter resistance to a new idea, it’s important to listen – but also to make sure that team members’ fault-finding does not monopolize the conversation, says Davey.” Coaches are well trained to listen intently and ask powerful questions back to the group. Davey suggests for example: “Hypothetically, if we could do it again, what would it look like? How could risks be mitigated? What would we have to solve for?” This shifts the focus towards a solution and allows each team member an opportunity to contribute.
Finally, it is important to always make sure the team’s work is connected back to the organization’s goals. “While each person’s tasks, strengths, and weaknesses may be different, if the overall vision, mission, and purpose are shared, then you ensure that everyone is moving in the same direction.Team dynamics are much stronger when goals are shared, making it easier to collaborate. The more ‘champions’ there are on a team, the more diverse the discussions and the more innovative the solutions.
The reality is that “humans are generally competitive by nature. As such, competing within an office setting is often second nature. However, by discouraging unhealthy competition and encouraging collaboration and recognition of group achievements rather than individual success, you’ll be able to foster a culture that not only thrives as a team but one that also inspires members to rely on one another.”
Teams are typically put together with members of different departments who have different skill sets. When individuals take a ‘challenge’ approach, it creates a negative environment for others on the team. To encourage collaboration, team members can go beyond their functional responsibilities to ‘champion’ an area of passion to them. This removes competition by allowing them to advocate for something bigger. It’s an effective way to build stronger relationships within the team and to accomplish something meaningful together.
Reflect on your contribution to teamwork today and how you might improve in the future:
- How are you showing up in a team? Are you enthusiastic to be there?
- Are you open to the ideas of other team members or are you closed-minded?
- How do you get your opinion across in a team? Are you comfortable speaking up?
- What are you passionate about debating within a team? How far will you take it?
- Have you ever been disappointed with a team brainstorm? What did you do about it?
- Are you happier working solo or in a team? How can this be different?
- Do you want to introduce new thinking into the team? Is it possible?
- Have you ever had a conflict with one team member? How was it resolved?
- Are you able to facilitate the group through a discussion? What do you think of this role?
- What is the best team you have ever been part of? What made it such a good experience?
The ‘champion’ vs ‘challenge’ mindset is a powerful tool to help teams work more effectively together. “To keep an organization moving in the desired direction, executives and managers at all levels must understand which mindsets and behaviors will take the company there and then take care to model them so that employees know how to act in the new context.”It’s not enough for just one team to adopt the ‘champion’ approach. An organization has to recognize and support its ‘champions’ and model the behavior at all times. The results of doing so will be plentiful – from an increase in productivity to better team dynamics to more innovation to higher employee engagement. It is an approach that will benefit the company for years to come.
Bloomberg: Workplace Coaching Isn’t Just for Bosses Anymore, by Adam Blenford (March 30, 2021)
Harvard Business Review: The Secrets of Great Teamwork, by Martine Haas and Mark Mortenson (June 2016)
Harvard Business Review: Is Your Team Solving Problems or Just Identifying Them, by Rebecca Knight (April 14, 2021)
Science of People: 5 Coaching Techniques to Turn Your Employees into All-Stars, by Vanessa Van Edwards
Forbes: Evidence-Based Strategies For Better Teamwork, by Kevin Kruse (October 8, 2020)
Harvard Business Review: The Hard Side of Change Management, by Harold L. Sirkin, Perry Keenan and Alan Jackson (October 2005)
Forbes: How Mastering Teamwork Will Make Your Organization Successful, by Alex Kowtun (February 13, 2020)
Center for Management & Organization Effectiveness (cmoe.com): Effective Coaching Strategies Help Drive Team Success