Secret Forces Thwarting Coaching and Teambuilding

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Part 2 of 2: The Most Powerful Force You Ever Didn’t See

In Part 1 of this two-part series we looked at the myth of individual initiative and came to the painful conclusion that there’s a limit to what 1-on-1 coaching can accomplish.  We asked ourselves, at what point does improving results through individual effort alone become a fool’s journey?  What do we do when we need a different approach?

It’s tempting to jump right to the idea of organizational culture, a sort of broad term for an environment with a strong pull. And certainly, culture pulls on every coaching client any of us has ever had.  But at the same time, leaping in one shot from things an individual could do him or herself all the way to patterns of behavior across the client’s enterprise is quite a distance. Role set theory provides a useful bridge for coaches – a midpoint between supporting individual behavior change and the overwhelming pull of the broader system.

As it turns out, each executive or leader connects to the organization not only through the simple marks on the org chart, but through a more powerful and nuanced set of metaphorical network wires called the role set.  If org chart links are a few old-fashioned telephone lines, role set connections are a bundle of high-bandwidth fiber optic cables.  They’re more sophisticated, more numerous, and they form stronger connections that move more information in many directions – and, along with information, influence.

>> Learn more at the webinar: Overcoming Unnecessary Limitations: What REALLY stalls Coaching and Teambuilding, and How to Fix It

Imagine a leader giving instructions and a set of direct reports following them. In simple terms, that’s a one-way discussion, but we all know it’s more complex than that. As the leader directs and subordinates attempt to follow, people frequently find themselves needing the leader to do something (or not do something). Over time, they develop techniques for getting what they want from that person by providing subtle, invisible penalties and rewards. So the leader has a “role set” pushing some very strong influence back in the other direction. Through his or her role set, an executive influences the organization – both its output and its culture.  And, through the role set, the organization and its culture influence the executive in return.

But wait, there’s more! One person’s role set doesn’t stand alone any more than one person stands alone.  Each “primary” member of your client’s role set has a “secondary” role set of his or her own – and on and on through the organization.

Those forces matter for a wide variety of reasons. If the pull of the role set is different enough from the activity demanded by the formal reporting structure, individuals experience high stress.  If the pull of the role set contains different ethics than the stated values of the organization, questionable or even illegal behavior may ensue despite formal directives to the contrary. And if the pull of the role set demands behavior different than what your client is trying to accomplish through coaching, the role set and not the coaching will very often win out.  Perhaps worst of all, since the influence is hidden, neither you nor your client will understand the reason for what feels like failure.

If you’re a coach who works with successful clients, you need to know that every single one has a role set, and it’s often pulling your client back to old behaviors. Can you address it through individual initiative? Yes, to a point.  But if you find that your client is going back to old behaviors despite either of your intentions, try to Identify the role sets in play and understand their influence.  Determining how to influence those people (blue in the image) and perhaps also their direct role sets (gray in the image) may not be easy – but it will go a long way in producing the change you and your client desire.

This article was excerpted from “Of Coaching and Culture: Overcoming Hidden Barriers to Change,” a Group Harmonics Industry Intelligence whitepaper. Visit the archive for the full version, as well as other whitepapers and case studies about changing management culture and norms.

Written by: Ed Muzio, CEO Group Harmonics

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