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Teaching Leaders to Coach Teams

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Clutterbuck talks about the role of the team coach being to create a ‘safe psychological space’. What does this mean, and how does one go about creating it?

This capacity to engage in dialogue appears to be a fundamental attribute of leaders able to lead others through change (8) (9). The curiosity that sits at the heart of effective listening yields new insights and encourages people to share their thoughts. The capacity to say what needs to be said (respectfully!) provides clarity and engenders trust.

Clutterbuck talks about the role of the team coach being to create a ‘safe psychological space’. What does this mean, and how does one go about creating it? A space is ‘safe’ if I feel I can speak into it without fear of repercussion. The team leader, therefore, has to want to hear what others are thinking. This isn’t as easy as it seems. If I hold a point of view to which I am firmly attached, then I may not welcome being challenged. If I am in a hurry, keen to land an action, I may have little tolerance for hesitant poorly formed thoughts. To create a safe space requires introspection, self-awareness, and careful contracting with everyone on the team.

Another metaphor is that of ‘container building’. The container is the safe space, but the container also needs to be heated up sometimes. Some teams, particularly new teams, prize harmony above all things. A desire for harmony can get in the way of people saying what needs to be said, can obstruct constructive challenge, and lead to sub-optimal performance.

Isaacs suggests there are five levers for the team coach to pull in managing the container. These are:

Evoking the ideal – making the dialogue purposeful. What do we hope will emerge from this conversation?

Supporting dreaming out loud – thinking aloud without fear of being judged.

Deepening the listening – listening curiously, again without judgment.

Daring people to suspend – noticing when people seek to close down an alternative perspective versus seeking to understand it.

Making it safe to oppose – legitimizing respectful challenge.

This last point brings us to …

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