Viewpoint: United, we stand

Managers are often disappointed by their attempts to unite people but coaching can help, says Chris Welford

In troubled times, managers usually exhort their people to stand together, get aligned and be prepared to fight a common battle. However, all too often they are disappointed at the response. Whether it’s collective action or individual procrastination, some people don’t seem to comply, even when it’s clear that it would be in their best interest. So much for a unitary perspective! How could adopting a coaching mindset help?

The cornerstone of coaching is being able to see the world from someone else’s point of view – it’s about building up non-judgemental awareness and it’s about being psychologically minded. Not everything is logical, linear or even visible. People’s motives sometimes lie well below the surface.

Even if the rational answer is to toe the party line in the interests of survival, it doesn’t follow that people will feel able to do this, and it’s their feelings that tend to win the day. They may have conflicting thoughts, beliefs and a mixed bag of emotions. Just being sensitive to this could help.

What could also be valuable is to encourage managers to take a pluralist approach. By this I don’t mean simply recognising that people belong to professional bodies or trade unions. What managers could consider with a coaching hat on are:

What groups exist in the old order? Where do people have a shared sense of belonging? Look beyond the obvious, as social identity isn’t always something that’s writ large!

Which groups are going to benefit from the new scheme of things and which groups are going to lose out in relative terms at least?

If there are no barriers to moving from a low-status group to a high status one, those in low status groups tend to move during times of change although not the other way round. A good coaching conversation might prompt this move.
The problem is that there are barriers to movement for many people and it’s here that trouble can begin. If a person’s group identity is pretty secure and they aren’t being threatened, there’s less of a problem and they could feasibly carry on as a member of a benign faction, not doing much to support the new world, but not getting in the way either.

The real danger lies in people feeling like they belong to a low-status group whose very existence is under attack and where there’s little hope of them crossing over to join the new elite. Keen to protect any sense of status and identity, they tend to become competitive, antagonistic and maybe openly hostile. Getting this on the table during a coaching conversation is extremely powerful and much better than the unitary approach which can cause reluctant capitulation at best and guerrilla warfare at worst.

Chris Welford leads Serco Consulting’s Organisational Psychology and Change service line

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