Coaching Teams

Coaching teams that do not want to be coached

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Anyone doing Agile Coaching long enough will inevitably find themself in a situation coaching teams that:

  1. do not want to be coached.
  2. should not be coached.
  3. cannot be coached.
  4. do not respond well Your coaching.

The differences between these situations are significant. Yet it is difficult for many coaches to understand what situation they are in. One reason for that is the similarities in how these situations display themselves:

  • You’re being challenged directly
  • There’s poor meeting attendance
  • The team has an inability to generate actions despite meeting, or to act on actions
  • The teams proposed solutions have no bearing towards their problems or goals
  • There are interpersonal conflict in teams that go unresolved
  • There’s no slack for the team to integrate new practices

But knowing the difference is key for determining how to move forward, and in order for you to not respond with automatic coping styles.

In this post I make a brief introduction to the differences, consequences, and offer some inspiration for how to proceed in those situations.

Resorting to automatic coping styles

Knowing what situation you are in is a great first step, but it’s not enough. Because it may still be difficult to understand what your options for moving forward are. And when we aren’t aware of options, we usually wind up in a defensive mode and resort to automatic coping. Automatic coping displays itself in different ways, some common ones I’ve seen include:

  • Socializing / establishing intimate relationships in an attempt to bridge the conflicts through likability.
  • Gossiping / dividing the group to push out the challenger/s.
  • Becoming more rational thus disregarding other peoples experiences, and emotions.
  • Pushing harder – challenging more.
  • Escalating to management.
  • Isolating / withdrawing from the situation.
  • Criticizing people through masked feedback individually (when you have a team issue, and you are a part of it).

If you recognize yourself in the above coping styles, you’re not alone. Not knowing what to do in tense situations is stressful–it’s called automatic coping styles for a reason. But learning to recognize your automatic coping style is the first step towards breaking the pattern.

But because automatic coping styles don’t make the undesirable patterns go away, nor give you more options, you have to power through for a while. Eventually, because things don’t improve, something has to change. Usually this leads to the coach leaving, or a team member does. Sometimes, new members are pushed into the team which makes things temporarily better, or the team gets disbanded.  In any way, resorting to automatic coping styles is a waste of time and energy for you and the team.


What to do instead of your automatic coping style?

The different situations require different approaches. A general approach that I always advocate is to acknowledge what’s happening, and to highlight it. It is absolutely fine to have a conversation with a team you are coaching about how the working relationship and engagement is developing. This may be as straight forward as extending an inviting to talk about it during a social break.

“Could we have a conversation about how you find our collaboration?… To me it feels a bit strained, and stressful. I’m noticing myself drained from energy a lot. I’m assuming I’m not the only one feeling this way about it. How are you finding our collaboration?”.

And suddenly you can compare notes. You can ask the team what they think contributes to the difficult collaboration, and if they even think coaching, and right now, is something they want. It’s a meta coaching conversation.

This will give you some more insights into what situation you are in. In doing this you’re also treating the team as an equal. You’re inviting them to the conversation, and you’re putting them in the co-driver seat of their own future. So this means that you’re likely to improve the relationship between you and the team regardless if you continue coaching them or not. Sometimes you’ll notice hostility towards yourself, the coach role, or any meeting. This may indicate that the does not want coaching, that they cannot be coached because their situation is not conducive to it, that they right now should not be coached, or it might unfortunately you that they do not want coaching from. Let’s look at the differences below.

(By the way, notice that there’s a pause after the question “could we have a conversation…”. Get the teams permission to have this conversation before having it. Make sure there’s time too.)


When teams do not want to be coached

If you discover that you’re working with a team that do not want to be coached, some things to try include:

  • Revisiting your shared goals with coaching.
  • If you haven’t established coaching goal, start there. Start by having the team describe their context, and ask them what they would like to get from a coaching engagement. This may be very different from what you want, or from what the manager wants. Explore, identify, define, align.
  • Help the team establish feedback loops between them and environment. Many things improve when feedback loops are restored.
  • Change the type of engagement. Explore what other type of support team might need besides coaching. Perhaps there’s something else that would be helpful.
  • Or just to end the coaching engagement.

And worth considering is that it’s absolutely fine to together agree that you’ll stick around for general observations that can be used to talk about potential future coaching goals later. Or the team might tell you they need some help with taking some facilitation responsibility of the hands of them. This might be a good way to both get context, and provide value to the team. If you’re up for it, that is.

If you’d like to hear more about this, Esther Derby and I recorded a podcast about “Coaching teams that do not want to be coached“. And if you’d like to learn more about contracting, Esther has an episode about “Contracting sets the tone”.


When teams should not be coached

Sometimes, teams should not be coached. They may need to be left alone, you might not have the appropriate relationships or competence, there might be trauma present, or whatever they are working to overcome might not be suitable for coaching. Occasionally, there are also ethical issues when a coach has been pushed into the team and the teams needs are actively disregarded. You, the coach, might also get stuck in a power game where management sees you as an extension to them–there to enforce an agile agenda. In this cases, the team should not be coached.

If you’re working with teams that should not be coached, you could:

  • Enhance management’s ability to manage.
  • Work with management to understand ethics of professional help, which coaching falls under.
  • Observe the team and organization for a while.
  • Make it known what other skills you have to offer beyond coaching. Perhaps they need a designer, or product owner, and you have experience from that. As long as you and the team are fine with that, that’s great!
  • Work to make data available so that the teams can govern themselves.
  • Work with management to make other options available, like therapists, professional trauma counselors, etc.


When teams cannot be coached

“Cannot be coached” refers to a situation where there are tensions in teams, but those originate from environmental factors that the team has no access to changing. Consider a situation where you are coaching a team that wants to be able to focus, but they’re working in an organization that employs “resource allocation” ad infinitum.

If you’re in such a situation, instead you might try to:

  • Create an awareness of what the environment looks like through data collection and visualizations.
  • Work to create an environment where team coaching might be possible
  • Offer alternative decision making frameworks such as Cynefin.
  • Offer more relevant research: Little’s law, Brooks’s law, Conway’s law, and Metcalfe’s law.
  • Support the team in understanding their situation, and in establishing a better conversational climate with management.

If you’d like to learn more about this, I’ve written about understanding your environment here. I also held a presentation about making (more) “Informed Interventions” at Agile By Example 2021.


When teams do not respond well to Your coaching

This one is tricky. The team is pushing back. It’s natural to want to view oneself as a hero, as someone well intended,  someone professional. So the first go-to place is not that your team is pushing back because of your role. But this happens frequently.

Coaches take on a role that is not helpful for the situation, not agreed upon, nor appreciated by the team. Top that up with a lack of feedback loops, poor self-reflection, and the problem will appear to be the teams attitude. But it’s not. It’s the role the coach is taking.

When teams do not respond well to your coaching:

  • Revisit your shared goals, and explore whether you are adhering to them. Perhaps the original goals are not relevant anymore.
  • Speak to the team about their past experiences with coaching. When has it been helpful? What role have they preferred with their previous coaches? Can you possibly agree on a different role? (Sometimes it may be easier to talk about styles than roles.)
  • Learn more roles you can take. If you call everything you do “coaching”, the team is probably right. (sorry)
  • Find another coach to take over the coaching assignment.
  • Ask for feedback.
  • Solicit more
  • Respect boundaries.

When it comes to learning more roles I highly recommend all aspiring coaches to learn “The Consulting Role Grid” (by Champion, Kiel, & Mclendon, 1990). It shows 9 roles we can take, when to take them, and how to behave.


The next time

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you’re coaching a team and it “feels off” to you, start by exploring which of the 4 situations you think you are in, look at your coping, and explore alternate ways of proceeding.

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