How can HR, OD and L&D partners enhance team effectiveness? Duncan Lewin draws on his research to outline challenges and propose solutions
HR, OD and L&D business partners are being called upon to help internal teams form, develop and perform more effectively. However, operational and psychological challenges impact the quality and consistency of their efforts.
Through research interviews with directors of these functions, I’ve built a detailed picture of their challenges and created a set of key recommendations to improve the depth and impact of their interventions.
Organisations currently face considerable challenges to team effectiveness – hybrid working, multi-cultural and frequent restructuring and re-formation, to name just a few. Expectations placed on internal partners when it comes to helping teams address these challenges are often unclear, many lack skills, many aren’t recognised for their efforts and find considerable psychological and operational challenges in enacting support interventions. The development of internal team coaching skills and faculties remains very limited, with a lack of research on the efficacy of internal business partners as enhancers of team effectiveness.
My research sought to fill this gap, helping internal business partners and organisations better understand and be better able to tackle their team effectiveness challenges.
Research interviews were conducted with 12 directors and leaders from a range of internal business partnering teams including people, HR, OD and L&D. Organisations ranged in size from an SME up to 10,000-strong multinationals, and covered engineering, finance, agriculture, consulting, healthcare, energy and publishing. Interview questions explored:
- Official and unofficial expectations for their roles in enhancing team effectiveness
- Organisational teamworking models and support processes
- Activities undertaken and challenges reported
- Team needs encountered and reported across their organisations.
Findings from the research include that business partners face variable and ambiguous expectations, shared team working models and support processes are thin on the ground, views on whether internal business partners should be involved in coaching teams varied widely, that there are a number of challenges associated with internal team coaching, and that enabling a shift away from silos can be difficult.
Below I explore these findings in turn.
Variable and ambiguous expectations
Interviewees reported significant variances in the official and unofficial expectations received from their organisations for their roles in impacting team effectiveness.
Official expectations (demonstrated by codified responsibilities, objective-setting and reward alignment) focused largely on how business partners support the structural elements of organisational teams.
This included supporting recruitment, team structuring, talent, onboarding, performance management and engagement data review.
Unofficial, or implicit, expectations placed on business partners were more focused on the psychological and relational dynamics of teams. Such expectations include being able to advise and facilitate team building and development, mediate team conflict and help leaders improve the psychological climate of their teams. However, these tasks are rarely codified in internal business partner objectives or performance metrics. One respondent said: “I have a performance goal around team development but there is no metric, which means credit for such work is unclear.”
Such unofficial expectations seem a legacy from the perception that those in HR/People functions are there to ‘sort out’ people issues. One said: “There’s very much an expectation to tell leaders what they need to do to develop their teams. They often lack awareness about their capability to do that…they’re very focused on achievement but pay less attention to developing team mindset, engagement, togetherness, etc.”
Also cited were leaders trying to outsource resolution of team issues, potentially drawing internal partners into Karpman’s ‘drama triangle’: “A frequent challenge we face is a lack of leadership accountability, leaders asking our business partners to sort team issues when generally they’ve had a major role in the creation of the problem.”
Not many shared team-working models and support processes
Few interviewees had clearly defined and shared organisation-wide philosophies or models for effective teams. Instead, such efforts were “emergent”, largely left to individual leaders, with “inconsistent” results. In addition, most lacked clear decision tree or triage processes for deciding the level of support needed for internal teams (such as digital resource libraries, leader coaching, full team coaching). The potential benefit of introducing these was noted: “I think it would be a real improvement to have a clear team framework, something to help people discuss experiences in their teams and where they see the team working well or not.”
The need for more coordinated organisational approaches was also highlighted: “We need to be better at helping people form and move between teams, our industry is calling for more agility but our thinking around teams hasn’t kept pace.”
To coach teams…or not?
Interviewees held very variable views on whether internal business partners should be involved in coaching teams, from ‘absolutely not’: “Team coaching is a capability by and large distinct to the mainstay of the role of the HR practitioner…we as a community would be getting involved in something where we’re not experts, we stay away from this”, through to those who viewed it as essential to their work: “I think this is a critical skill to be able to do our role effectively.”
Each organisation will take its own view on whether internal partners should coach teams. However, due to the ‘touchpoints’ including recruitment, onboarding, development and wellbeing that such partners have with internal teams, there’s considerable value in all business partners having at least having some deeper knowledge around how teams and groups form, develop and behave.
The last 20 years have seen a huge and successful rise in the development of internal individual coaching faculties. I believe now is the time to do the same for building internal team coaching capability, supporting the complex and fast-moving teams people are asked to work in.
Internal team coaching: challenges and successes
For those interviewees whose teams did engage in forms of internal team coaching and facilitation, operational challenges noted were around keeping space free:
“Often we plan activities and then they get sacrificed for commercial needs” and in finding opportunities for ad hoc interactions with leaders and teams: “Remote and hybrid working has made it harder to get that incidental contact time, they don’t see me around the business the way they used to”, meaning interactions became more formalised.
Psychological challenges were experienced in getting teams to engage in reflection: “It can be difficult to shift teams from a functional to a development mindset…they report benefit when they do but it can be a hard sell”, as well as managing status with leaders in senior teams: “It can be hard to convince myself and them that I can make this work.”
And when considering bringing in external team coaches, anxiety was cited around credibility and setup: “I don’t want to be in a situation where as HRD I’m saying to the exec that I can’t do this [team coaching or facilitation]. They are my bosses and I want to look credible, so I think external team coaches need to be very mindful in helping internal practitioners manage their profile.”
A notable success story came from an interviewee who led the formation of an internal team coaching faculty: “We had no explicit mandate for team effectiveness but started the work ourselves and uptake has been surprisingly good.” Their work included creating organisation-wide team toolkits, developing internal team coaching skills for different levels of practitioner depth and pairing internal and external team coaches to aid capability building.
Shifting from silos
The challenge of helping cross-functional teams was cited several times: “Getting true commitment to such teams, including the exec, is hard…leaders find it difficult to leave their function at the door”, as well as challenges in helping people think about the wider organisation: “It’s rare to get people thinking at a group or macro level, to understand the true collaboration and negotiation of priorities required.”
Drawing on these findings and my experiences working with internal business partners, I offer the following seven actionable recommendations. These obviously need to be tailored to the organisation, taking into account views on team effectiveness, business partner remits and skillsets, types of teams and groups needed, and appetite and budget for internal team coaching and development.
1. Develop organisation-wide philosophies for team and group working
Many have underestimated the psychological complexity of making teams and groups work, especially the demands placed on people to belong to multiple teams and groups in their organisations. Terms such as ‘high-performing team’ are used liberally but few can readily identify the constituent behaviours needed to achieve this.
To address this, business partner teams can support the creation and sharing of organisation-wide philosophies on the kinds of teams and groups needed, the aims of such entities, and ideas for making these work. These can be embedded into ‘team effectiveness toolkits’ and shared with all to provide frameworks for discussion (not prescription) and a common language that supports people as they join and develop teams, as well as work cross-functionally. Focus should move away from ‘high-performing’ teams (a concept which creates silos and short-termism) to more systemically-focused models.
2. Include teamworking in onboarding and management training
Most organisations assume that people innately understand ‘teams’ and ‘teamwork’. In practice, peoples’ understanding is wildly different! Incorporating teamworking into the onboarding process is hugely useful to help new joiners understand and adapt to a new culture. For example, someone moving from a more loosely affiliated ‘learning team’ to a highly interdependent team may be making a significant psychological transition; this will support them to consider the impact of this change.
Similarly, the development of ‘team leadership toolkits’ for new and promoted managers will help them better consider team and group behaviours, make meetings work, generate debate and so on. This is often touched on in leadership development but in my experience too little focus is given to understanding the behavioural dynamics present and how to navigate them.
3. Clarify and make explicit business partner remits for team effectiveness
Given the variability of expectations placed upon them, business partners need to be intentionally explicit with teams and leaders in their remit for the structural and behavioural elements of team effectiveness. This should derive from consultation with the organisation about team needs, along with coordinated agreement across HR, OD and L&D and other partnering functions, so that clear ownership for team effectiveness is codified and understood across the organisation.
A decision should be made as to whether business partners coach teams or outsource such work and the rationale shared. Objective-setting for internal partner efforts should include clear performance metrics so that work is recognised and rewarded. Team leaders may also need to be educated to provide clarity in the support that can be asked for and provided.
4. Develop decision processes for supporting teams
Alongside including teamworking in onboarding and management training, business partner teams should develop clear decision processes for handling leader and team requests for support, as founder of Team Coaching Studio, Georgina Woudstra, suggested to me.
Doing the latter will reduce time spent ‘reinventing the wheel’, will provide consistency of service, and help less experienced business partners understand how to support teams. For example, this decision process could offer different levels of support, including a specific, open access resource library for leaders, one-to-one leadership coaching specifically focused on team dynamics, through to full team coaching and deciding what mix of internal and external team coaches are appropriate to the work.
5. Add team coaching skills to business partner skillsets
Given their multiple touchpoints with teams, all business partners should have a foundation-level upskilling in the psychology, behaviour and dynamics present in groups and teams. For organisations that develop business partners as internal team coaches, development programmes should include an experiential component and address boundaries, complex contracting, use of self and setting up team coaching programmes.
Any team psychometrics used should be carefully considered; these can often be used to ‘diagnose’ a team and put the coach in an ‘expert’ rather than coach role.
6. Pair internal and external team coaches
For organisations that choose to develop internal team coaches, ways of pairing them with external team coaches should be explored. This can enhance the depth of such work for recipient teams (internal knowledge plus external perspective) and deepen internal capability for improving team effectiveness.
7. Tackle silos with ‘team of teams’ coaching
This requires the coaching of multiple teams simultaneously. Known as ‘team of teams’ coaching, it’s a powerful way to improve inter-team collaboration and, whilst complex, is well suited to internal business partners who can play a mediating role between such teams.
Learning how to do this (perhaps under the guidance of an external team coach) will significantly enhance internal skills in team effectiveness and be of particular value in leading cross-functional innovation, restructuring or merger events.
About the author
Duncan Lewin is a team and board coach with more than 10 years coaching experience, is certified as an APECS executive coach and is in the final year of his MSc in Team Coaching at Ashridge Business School. To contact Lewin, email: Duncan@ModernLeaders.co.uk
- G Woudstra, Mastering the Art of Team Coaching, TCS Press, 2021
- K St-John Brooks, Internal Coaching, Routledge, 2018
- Y Gabriel, Organizations in Depth, Sage,1999
- E de Haan, The Gift of Coaching, Open University Press, 2022
- D Clutterbuck, Coaching the Team at Work (2nd edn), Nicholas Brealey, 2020
- S Karpman, Fairy tales and script drama analysis, in Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 7(26), 39-43, 1968