Secret Forces Thwarting Coaching and Teambuilding Part 2: The Most Powerful Force You Ever Didn’t See

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Introduction to Organizational Influence

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.

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How Organization Are Linked

Image 1: Organization Chart

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 and more numerous, and they form stronger connections that move more information in many directions – and, along with information, influence.

Complex Dynamics of Leadership and Influence

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.

Addressing Role Set Conflicts for Effective Coaching

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.

Strategies for Coaches Facing Role Set Challenges

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.

Headshot of Ed Muzio
Ed Muzio

Author Ed Muzio is one of a few management consultants in the world who does systems-level coaching with a CEO or SVP and his/her staff simultaneously, helping executive teams make a cultural shift so significant that it propagates downward into how the organization runs. His work has been hailed for producing substantial results even in the most challenging circumstances, and Ed has been called “one of the planet’s clearest thinkers on management practice” by the editor of an international business magazine. His mantra is “higher output, lower stress, sustainable growth” – a promise central to his company’s mission of creating culture changers – and his books have won Awards of Excellence in the performance improvement field. The most recent, Iteratedescribes a systems approach to execution in leadership and management that pulls from over 70 years of research and practice spanning five academic disciplines and has been successfully implemented over decades, from startups to the Fortune 100.

Originally trained as an engineer, Ed has started organizations large and small, led global initiatives in technology development and employee recruitment, and published articles and papers on a variety of business topics. Ed’s accomplishments include the creation and stewardship of a worldwide manufacturing infrastructure program, a nationally recognized engineering development organization, and a non-profit residential program for at-risk youth.

Connect with Ed on LinkedIn, FacebookTwitter, and at

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