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Navigating Tough Team Dynamics With Strengths-Based Coaching

Navigating Tough Team Dynamics With Strengths-Based Coaching

by Mara Hoogerhuis

Teamwork is increasingly becoming more complex. People often must work together from various offices and different teams to communicate and align work despite frequently changing environments. Unlocking and solving what it takes to create great teamwork could be the key to the 21st century's greatest leadership challenge: building a culture of high performance.

So, it is no surprise that as productive and collaborative teamwork becomes more critical and elusive, the need to coach and intervene where teamwork has gone awry also increases. Naturally, individuals who have seen the value of the strengths-based philosophy and CliftonStrengths tool in their own lives see the impact that the approach could bring to a team. While the impact can be powerful, I've found that the temptation can be high to see the CliftonStrengths tool as a silver bullet and an end rather than a means to creating strong teams. And the challenges and stakes are additively higher when working with dysfunctional teams where relationships are few and trust is limited.

Through my work facilitating team strengths sessions, I've found that approaching sessions (particularly those positioned to help dysfunctional teams) with these five strategies in mind can help you manage your clients' expectations and drive the best possible outcomes, especially when given a limited amount of time with a team.

Build a Proxy Experience to Discuss Team Dynamics First

Jumping into a difficult conversation with a low-trust team about why they have low trust rarely yields positive results. I recommend starting the session with an experiential activity that allows the team to work together and have a little fun. You can find ideas for team building activities like these all over the internet. The value of this proxy experience is for the team to make observations about the collaborative approaches that they see play out through the activity. Here's why it works:

  • Facilitating a team dynamics conversation around a proxy experience can take some of the unproductive emotion and resistance out of teamwork-related conversations.
  • The proxy experience creates a safer space to observe and discuss individual tendencies and perceptions.
  • Once the team has practiced observing themselves and has shared their observations of the proxy experience, the team may be more prepared to think and discuss dynamics in their "real work."
  • A best practice is to identify a proxy experience that allows the team to succeed together or see their evolution as a team. This helps them talk about what is working well for the dynamics of their team. Reflecting on these positive aspects will provide more powerful insights than rehashing what doesn't work within the team's collaborative style.

Don't Start With Strengths

As strengths coaches, our initial inclination is to use the CliftonStrengths tool, namely the Team Strengths Grid, as a vehicle to ignite conversation around a team's dynamics. In fact, there is often a sense that a strengths coach can look at a team's themes on the grid and tell the team "what it all means," akin to reading the tea leaves. I've found that team conversations work best when they first center around a team's actual experiences and then introduce the Team Strengths Grid. Only after the team has described HOW they work together can the team spot connections between those experiences and how they are hardwired.

The goal of this CliftonStrengths tool is to be a catalyst for great conversations, not to negate the need for conversations. I want the tool to support and help uncover insights for the team but not to be the center of the conversation. The center of the conversation should be the team's observations of their current state of collaboration and a discussion around how they may improve.

Team Activity Idea

  • Break the team into small groups to discuss reflection questions such as those below, as small groups provide the best environment for encouraging all voices to speak up and be heard.
    • What do you love about your team? What is the team really good at?
    • What can drive you crazy about this team? Where does the team struggle?
    • How would an outsider describe this team?
    • How do you want to be known as a team?
  • Ask the groups to report their observations and compare answers as a whole team.
  • When you are done sharing as a team, hand out the Team Strengths Grid and discuss each reflection question in the Context of the grid to uncover connections and insights.
    • How does the way your team is hardwired help you make sense of why you experience the team in this way?
    • How does the way your team is hardwired give you clues to new ways to proceed, collectively and individually?

Remember the "I" in Team

The CliftonStrengths assessment originally was designed for the purpose of individual development. Although there is a clear and valuable application at the team level, there is still value in starting team strengths-based discussions with the individual. Especially with dysfunctional teams, deferring the team session until all individual team members have been coached could yield a more honest and open team conversation in the end. Here's why:

  • Conversations designed to uncover "how the team is working" might position the team as an entity unto itself and, in my experience, can remove the powerful individual ownership of experience that is so crucial to building strong collaborative environments.
  • Individual strengths coaching can help a team member to acknowledge, appreciate and own the natural filter that they bring to the team. Example insight: "I see the world as I am, not as it is; therefore, conflict or tension arise not just from someone else's actions but also my reactions."
  • Individual team members' ownership about who they are and how they may be impacting the team is critical for a group conversation to result in improved performance and additional patience, acceptance and ultimately appreciation for their diverse team.

Embrace the Power of Conflict

Teams often feel that conflict is a negative that should be avoided. In fact, team conflict may be at the heart of why a leader considers a team to be "dysfunctional" and why they have engaged your services to begin with. However, high-performing teams recognize that conflict is a natural -- and not always negative -- consequence of collaboration, and having conflict around ideas can lead to better outcomes. The key is knowing how to engage in true dialogue and resolve conflicts successfully.

Facilitated Conversation Idea

  • Engage the team in a candid discussion about the concept of conflict. The goal of the discussion is to surface how members of the team inherently view conflict, what their natural reactions are when conflict arises and what their tolerance to conflict is.
  • Then, help them to observe connections between the concept of conflict and their Signature Themes.
    • How do your natural talents connect to how you approach and resolve conflict?
  • Create a space so that people can know this about one another and encourage the team to identify new norms for how they will handle conflict going forward.

Start With 2

A team is a collection of individuals. The relationship between each individual and every other individual ultimately impacts whether the team can fully function. Especially when working with dysfunctional teams, it can be an overwhelming and unrealistic end goal to create equally strong and trusting relationships between everyone on the team. Rather, I emphasize Gallup's research around powerful partnerships, outlined in the book The Power of 2, and help team members to think about who they could build a better partnership with, as a starting point. Here's the approach:

  • Encourage the improvement of one-on-one relationships to strengthen trust and partnerships between pairs.
  • As the pairs find better ways to work together, their insights about partnerships lead to enhanced trust and relationships across the whole team over time.
  • This Focus is not on building cliques; it's about expanding the circle, breaking down silos and creating new relationships across a team where trust and relationship are low. This approach is about baby steps.
  • In a team session, after reviewing the Team Strengths Grid and discussing connections between Signature Themes and the current state of their teamwork, consider asking questions like:
    • What new relationships can come out of these conversations?
    • What potential new partnerships do you see on the team?
    • Who on the team is a key stakeholder in your success, and how could you better partner with them?

Sharing the strengths-based approach and CliftonStrengths tool with groups can be an uplifting team building experience, inject a needed dose of engagement and be a catalyst for more productive collaboration. When bringing it to dysfunctional teams, these five strategies have proven helpful in starting conversations that could drive improved collaboration, partnerships and team productivity. Lastly, those impacts and the building of trust and relationships will take time, so be sure to manage your client's and your own expectations accordingly.

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:


Mara Hoogerhuis' Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Strategic, Maximizer, Relator, Responsibility and Arranger.

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