Melbourne Business School News How team leaders can overcome complex challenges with group coaching

How team leaders can overcome complex challenges with group coaching

Group coaching is an effective way for leaders to approach complex challenges – and boost team performance at the same time.

Aviva Berzon, leadership expert at Melbourne Business School

"Team leaders who use group coaching are able to build trust between team members and develop their skills to handle ambiguous workplace challenges," says leadership and development expert Aviva Berzon.

Aviva delivers on Melbourne Business School's General Management Program and Managing and Leading Change short courses. She advocates group coaching as a tool that team leaders can use to address the adaptive challenges they face in the workplace.

Adaptive challenges are complex problems that have no obvious solution, or many different possible solutions, and are especially likely to arise in times of uncertainty.

"An adaptive challenge is one where you adapt your approach as the situation changes," Aviva says.

"For example, if there's increasing demand in the market for your service and also the possibility of an international competitor entering the market, which actions should be taken next? There may be no 'right' course of action until things progress.

"Group coaching helps leaders leverage the experience within their team to deal with these sorts of challenges."

Two group coaching methods Aviva teaches are based on the principles of peer consulting and advocacy and inquiry.

Peer consulting

This is a peer-based process designed to help an individual gain a broader perspective on their challenge.

The approach involves three phases. The first is that an individual will describe their challenge to a small group. After that, the group will attempt to diagnose it.

"The diagnosis phase is about unpacking what the real problem is," Aviva says.

"During this phase, the team members don't go into problem-solving mode – they're just trying to diagnose the problem, like a doctor would try to diagnose a medical problem."

After that has been done, the final phase is about brainstorming possible next steps and options to bring new perspectives to the challenge.

"As the group undertakes the process, the person who presented the problem simply listens without participating in the conversation," Aviva says.

"The opportunity to just listen can be profound. They are often surprised by how much insight they gain from people who are hearing about the challenge for the first time and offering their views.

"The leader facilitates the process and asks questions, but they should not position themselves as a source of authority or expertise."

The peer consulting process gives teams practice at working together collaboratively as well as offering the person who presented their challenge fresh ideas on how to tackle it. Once a team has practiced this process, leaders can take it to the next level by introducing some rules to the conversation.

Advocacy and inquiry

When a group is trying to solve a problem together, Aviva employs rules that build the skills of advocacy and inquiry to stimulate reflective learning.

"One rule that I apply is that you can only make a statement in response to a question," she says.

"If you think about it, that sets up a really interesting dynamic. It activates insightful questions and reflection because you have to pay attention to what's going on in the conversation. It slows things right down – you have to really listen to people."

Introducing unconventional rules to a conversation not only focuses people's attention, but also increases vulnerability – depending on how far leaders want to take it.

"To get even more edgy, you can introduce the additional rule that if you ask a question, you have to state the hypothesis behind it, which is an assumption or hunch," Aviva says.

"When you ask a question, it can be loaded. There are always assumptions behind it. You're not asking it for no reason.

"For example, if I was to ask why you haven't taken the action that you said you were going to take, my hypothesis might be that you're in an environment where you don't feel safe to fail.

"A responder might agree and build on the hypothesis, or answer no, it's not that I don’t feel safe to fail, it's because of this or that reason."

Aviva believes that by creating an environment where people can be truthful when discussing their challenges and assumptions, teams can build trust and work together to find more effective solutions.

"If you create conditions where people can express that, it builds trust and transparency by bringing things to the surface," she says.

"Everyone has skin in the game in this conversation – there’s more depth and cut-through. You also have more choices about the next steps, and you have more insight if you're able to listen.

"As Albert Einstein once said: 'We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.'"

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