Archive | April, 2016

Power distribution and its impact on team performance

29 Apr

The impact of power differentials on how teams and groups work is not as straightforward as it might seem. Having a mix of powerful and less powerful people in a team, or having a team composed entirely of powerful people can both have a negative impact on performance (Angus et al, 2016). It seems that the more powerful people are, the less effective they are in tasks that require coordination with others. High power individuals tend to be over-confident, to be poor listeners, to devalue other people’s ideas, interrupt and take credit for other people’s suggestions and successes. Compared with low power groups, when working together, a group of high power individuals is less focused, less creative, has more conflict and shares less information. Where high power individuals shone was when they worked on their own.

Power can be acquired in many ways, but some of the most common in a team context are:

  • Hierarchical power (position or authority)
  • Power of expertise (knowledge)
  • Power of connection (networks of influence or information, often associated with relatively long tenure in post; and also being “in with” other high power individuals)

The implications for team coaching are considerable. The team members may well recognise that power differentials exist and affect behaviours, but are unlikely to be aware of how these play out. So what can the team coach do to raise awareness and help the team manage power issues better?

A simple exercise to bring power issues into the open is the following:

  • Ask everyone to rate themselves against each of their team colleagues against the question When you are in meetings with this person, do you feel more powerful than them, less powerful or about the same level of power?
  • In situations, where you feel more powerful, how would you rate a) yourself and b) the group or team on:
    • Listening to and being genuinely interested in less powerful colleagues’ views?
    • Working collaboratively?
    • Sharing information?
    • Valuing other people’s contributions
    • Generating creative ideas
  • In situations, where you feel less powerful, how would you rate a) yourself and b) the group or team on:
    • Listening to and being genuinely interested in less powerful colleagues’ views?
    • Working collaboratively?
    • Sharing information?
    • Valuing other people’s contributions
    • Generating creative ideas
  • In situations, where you feel equally powerful, how would you rate a) yourself and b) the group or team on:
    • Listening to and being genuinely interested in less powerful colleagues’ views?
    • Working collaboratively?
    • Sharing information?
    • Valuing other people’s contributions
    • Generating creative ideas
  • What could you as an individual do to overcome the negative effects of power differentials, when you are in situations where you feel powerful or less powerful?
  • What could the team as a whole do, to overcome the negative effects of power differentials?

The outcome of this exercise should be greater individual and collective awareness of the issues, along with practical approaches for managing them. These approaches are likely to be a mixture of structures and behaviours. Structural approaches may include:

  • Building time into the agenda of meetings, for sharing of information
  • Generating ideas quietly and individually, before pooling and discussing them together
  • Appointing one or more of the less powerful members in a meeting as “designated contrarian”, with the role of presenting alternative or minority perspectives on an issue
  • Making sure that work groups are not dominated by (or composed solely of) high power individuals

Behavioural approaches may include:

  • Rules or norms about how to flag up situations, where power issues are affecting the quality of discussions, decision-making and /or performance
  • Analysis of situations, where individuals felt themselves to be in a low power status, and that this has had a negative effect on individual and/or collective performance
  • Making power management issues part of 360-degree feedback
  • The team coach can point out when he or she observes power issues affecting behaviours in a negative way

A good starting point is for the team to recognise that high performance is more likely and more sustainable, when there is a relative “power equilibrium” and that it is everyone’s responsibility to create and sustain that state, wherever possible. The responsibility therefore becomes shared between high and low power team members.


David Clutterbuck 2016


Angus, J Hildreth, D & Anderson, C (2016) Failure at the Top: How Power Undermines Collaborative Performance, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

The impact of titles on talent performance

27 Apr

How you think about your job – what it contributes, how it adds value, how it links with and supports other roles – has long been associated with motivation and performance. More than 25 years ago, I invited all the staff in my company (an employee communication boutique of around 40 people) to choose their own titles, based on their aspirations for their job roles. While we didn’t measure the results in any systematic way, it was clear that there was a positive effect on engagement and a clearer focus on what was important in each of their roles. The one person, who wasn’t allowed to choose their title, was me, as the chairman. I was quite pleased by the title the staff awarded me – Grand Master of Chaos. We debated whether this should go on my business cards, but opted in the end to use it internally only. However, each team and function used their new titles with pride.

It’s gratifying, therefore, to read a short article in the latest Harvard Business Review, based on an Academy of Management Journal article a couple of years ago[1]. Experiments in a US hospital chain found that asking employees to design their own job titles had a positive effect not just on how emotionally exhausted they felt at the end of the day, but also on the amount of psychological safety they felt and how appreciated they felt their work was.

One of the authors of the original article, Daniel Cable has also experimented with asking groups of employees doing the same job, asking them to collectively agree a job title that they felt accurately described what the role was trying to accomplish. Again, there was a strong positive impact on job satisfaction and employee engagement.

Cable recommends a two stage approach. First, the employee(s) should reflect on the purpose of the job (who it serves and how); and on how they relate to it (for example, what special qualities they bring to it). In the second stage, the employee(s) generate creative suggestions to capture the essence of their reflections, both from themselves and from invited others.

Changing job titles has been a management tool for centuries – particularly in the cynical context of motivating someone by making them feel more important, while not actually giving them more authority or greater reward. Engaging employees in the re-titling process is very different, however. It places them more in control, makes the process more authentic and more meaningful, and releases energy. Given that job roles are constantly evolving, along with organisational structures and customer needs, there is a practical case for reflecting on and reviewing job titles at least every couple of years – if only to refocus attention on the question Why and how do we do what we do?


© David Clutterbuck, 2016

[1] Grant, AM, Berg, J & Cable, DM (2014) Job Titles as Identity Badges: How Self-Reflective Titles Can Reduce Emotional Exhaustion

What to do if my coachee/ mentee develops a serious illness

18 Apr

When a coachee or mentee reveals that they have a serious illness, such as cancer or clinical depression, it can be hard to know how best to react. You want to be sympathetic, supportive and helpful, but you know that your role doesn’t encompass helping them manage their illness. Coaches and mentors in this situation often report that they feel confused and unsure what to do. So here are some practical tips for maintaining the developmental focus of your conversations with them, while being appropriately supportive of their immediate needs.

  • When people feel overwhelmed by crisis, their whole perspective narrows. The illness and its implications (for them and for their dependents, if they have any) are all they can concentrate on on for a time. You can help by acknowledging their concerns and enabling them to articulate what it is that they most fear. Only when these fears are in the open, can they begin to manage them and develop coping strategies that will lessen their anxiety. In other words, when we have clarity about what we are up against, we have greater capacity to find ways to carry on with our lives. Useful questions here are:
    • What precisely are your fears for yourself/ for others?
    • What needs to happen for you to manage those fears and the situation?
    • What resources can you call upon from other people?
    • What resources can you call upon from within yourself?
  • Don’t expect the person to be aware of all the emotions they are feeling. They may be numb in shock, or some strong emotions may be temporarily smothering others. Give them time to think about how they are feeling. Be honest about your feelings and encourage them to do the same – a small investment in emotional honesty now will pay dividends later.
  • Be sensitive to when they are ready to move on emotionally and start to plan how to manage their life and their work in the new circumstances. A useful question is: “What do you need to do now or in the next few days to put you back in control of your life?”
  • Coming to terms with a major illness often causes people to question many of their deeply held assumptions, relating to identity, personal purpose and what’s important in their lives. It takes time for them to work these things through, so don’t be surprised, if they appear to vacillate and change their minds. This is all part of the process of coming to terms with atraumatic situation.
  • Although the person’s initial, instinctive response to the crisis may be that they have to give up on their coaching or mentoring goals, with reflection and support they often realise that having something aspirational to work towards is important, in terms of both helping to cope with their situation and, in many cases, as part of the cure. You can help them work out whether they really want to abandon their learning journey, or simply to slow it down, or to replace this learning journey with another that will captivate their imagination.
  • Mirroring their deep, negative emotions about themselves and their situation isn’t helpful. Neither is the opposite – trying to be desperately cheerful! When we react in either of these ways, we are typically trying to maintain our own emotional equilibrium, which has been disturbed by our empathy. It is not recommended to ask what the silver lining to the situation might be! However, you can ask though-provoking questions that direct the person to sources of their own resilience. For example:
    • What is there in your life that you can still find joy in?
    • What do you still deeply care about?
    • What could you still contribute to the world, no matter what happens?
  • Help them think through and rehearse conversations they need to have with other people – their boss, their colleagues, key family and friends and so on. Because these people will also often struggle to find an appropriate response, such conversations are vital in creating a fully supportive environment for them.
  • Ensure that they know where to go to for professional counselling and other, practical support and be careful not to step into that role yourself.
  • Be available when needed, at least in the early stages, but make it clear that this “on demand” availability is to help them through the period, while they establish a new equilibrium in their life.
  • Learn from the experience. Useful questions to ask yourself in quiet moments include:
    • How would I want to react, if something similar happened to me?
    • What support would I call upon?
    • How would I find the resilience I needed?

Your answers to yourself may also give you ideas on how to be more helpful to your coachee/ mentee. Remember that none of us know quite how we will react to personal crisis, but that thinking it through beforehand can help us move through the stages of grief more quickly and sure-footedly.

Also useful to read here is the article: What if…the coachee/ mentee is already receiving help from a counsellor or therapist?

© David Clutterbuck, 2016