Podcast #039 - Reflections on the Theory, Research and Practice of Team Coaching


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Dr. Ruth Wageman, Leading Scholar, Advisor, and Educator in Organizational Behavior and Collaborative Leadership

#039: Reflections on the Theory, Research and Practice of Team Coaching

Join Dr. Krister Lowe and today’s special guest Dr. Ruth Wageman–a leading scholar and practitioner in the area of team coaching. Dr. Wageman is Director at ReThink Health and an Associate in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.  She specializes in the field of Organizational Behavior, studying and teaching the design and leadership of task performing teams.  Professor Wageman studies the conditions under which teams are able to accomplish collective purposes and to grow in capability over time. Her work with teams places a particular emphasis on self-governing teams, especially those with complex problem-solving and social change purposes. Her current work focuses on enabling the development of collaborative leadership capacity, especially that of multi-stakeholder groups working to transform regional health systems.  With Richard Hackman and Erin Lehman, she designed the Team Diagnostic Survey, an instrument that assesses the effectiveness of teams and that is used both for scholarly research and to guide effective leadership of teams.  Selected publications include: “Creating Great Leadership Teams for Complex Problems,” “The changing ecology of teams: New directions for teams research,” with Heidi Gardner and Mark Mortensen, “Senior Leadership Teams: What it Takes to Make Them Great,” with Debra A. Nunes, James Burruss, and Richard Hackman; “Asking the Right Questions about Leadership,” American Psychologist; “As the twig is bent: The effects of shared values on emergent interdependence in teams” with Fred Gordon, Organization Science; “A theory of team coaching,” with Hackman, Academy of Management Review; “Team Diagnostic Survey: Development of an Instrument,” with Hackman and Lehman, Journal of Applied Behavioral Sciences. Dr. Wageman received her Ph.D. from Harvard University’s Joint Doctoral Program in Organizational Behavior in 1993.  She received her BA in Psychology from Columbia University in 1987, and returned there to join the faculty of the Graduate School of Business, making her the first female alum of Columbia College to join Columbia’s faculty.  She joined the faculty of the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in 2000, and returned to Harvard in 2006.  She joined ReThink Health, an Initiative of the Fannie E. Rippel Foundation, as its Director of Research in 2009.
In this episode of The Team Coaching Zone Podcast,  Dr. Wageman shares her journey into becoming a leading scholar in the area of teams and team coaching. She also provides an overview of a number of her books and articles that will be of particular interest to team coaches. Additional themes covered in the episode include: the key factors that contribute to team effectiveness; the role of compelling purpose, task requirements, and structure in teams; the different types and timing of team coaching interventions; the leader as team coach vs. using external team coaches; the Team Diagnostic Survey;  leadership teams; multi-stakeholder teams, stewardship teams and more.  She also shares some reflections on her mentor and colleague the late Dr. Richard Hackman. Finally Dr. Wageman discusses her recent work creating systemic change in regional healthcare systems through her work as a Director at ReThink Health–an initiative of the Fannie E. Rippel Foundation.
This episode is a priceless opportunity for team coaches to learn from a world-class scholar, a leading researcher and an early pioneer in the field of team coaching.  It is an episode you will surely not want to miss!

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Contact Dr. Wageman


Part 1 – Getting to Know the Coach: Dr. Ruth Wageman


  • Director of ReThink Health, and an associate in psychology at Harvard
  • Based in rural New Hampshire
  • The Rippel Foundation (of which ReThink Health is a part) based in New Jersey, along with a group in Cambridge, MA
  • Specialist in organizational behavior, studying and teaching the design and leadership of task-performing teams
  • Focuses on conditions under which teams are able to accomplish tasks with collective purposes and to grow in capability over time
  • Emphasis on self-governing teams
  • Currently working on enabling leadership capacity, esp that of multi-stakeholder groups
  • Co-created Team Diagnostic Survey with Dr. Richard Hackman and Aaron Lehman
  • Author of numerous journal publications
  • PhD from Harvard, BA from Columbia, has taught at Columbia and currently at Harvard and Dartmouth
  • In 2009 joined ReThink Health
  • Personal experiences: had amazing experiences working in teams 50% of the time, other experiences were more difficult. Wondered why the difference?
  • Started out in the field of social psychology as an undergraduate, looked at rewards for performance feedback. Rewarding on the basis of competitive performance makes people enjoy it less – not just about studying behavior, but looking at impact can have real impact


  • Grew up in blue collar town in New Jersey, one of five children
  • Always wanted a horse – “the best thing about being an adult is that you get to do the things you wanted to do when you were a kid” – now rides. Often brings in a horse mention to writing! “Pull as a team,” leadership teams as “thoroughbreds,” etc
  • Riding has helped thinking about coaching and teaching a lot
  • After first year of graduate school did an internship to get some work experience – worked with the Delta Consulting group looking at culture of customer service. Looked at shift from independent work to self-managing teams. Started to think about the question: “How do you create great teams?”
  • Teams truncate autonomy – can you have interdependent teamwork and autonomy?
  • Changing reward system: combining individual and team tasks and rewards actually wasn’t effective
  • People with high needs for autonomy can be rewarded for team work will become people who are better at and enjoy team work over time. Shows the importance of the kind of work people engage in and how it shapes people

2005 article: A Theory of Team Coaching

  • Thought there was too much being written about team coaching. Literature focused more on moment to moment interactions though, and there was little about how you structure and design a team
  • There are more powerful drivers about how teams evolve effectively – is purpose of the team compelling? Is the work itself clear? Was reward system recognizing great team performance?
  • Focus seemed to look more at solving problems that came up from bad team design, focusing on relationships which doesn’t improve team performance effectiveness
  • Kaplan article: The conspicuous absence of evidence that process consultation enhances team task performance
  • What matters in the way people interact to team performance effectiveness includes the following processes: how hard people are working, strategic choices (are they using experience and innovation in approach to problem solving), and how well are they using knowledge and skill in the team – not fundamentally about relationships
  • Can you as a coach help teams develop these processes for better outcomes
  • The Wisdom of Teams (Katzenbach) – getting teams unstuck comes from getting clear about task you’re working on
  • If you create the conditions to accomplish as a team, relationships will evolve positively
  • When teams are well-designed, coaching is much more effective and impact is greater
  • Coaching a team around strategy at the mid-points rather than at the beginning is more effective (starting off with this is far to abstract)
  • Timing question – Colin Fisher has looked at this

Team Coaching

  • When you look for this, it’s often referred to as “process consultation”
  • Much of coaching literature is about coaching individuals to be better team members
  • “Available expert coaching” – critical that the team has someone available to them to help develop good processes. The designated team leader may not be the right person for that – it’s asking a lot of one person who is already doing management work
  • External coaches can bring a framework/scaffolding to help teams deal with the content they’re grappling with
  • Developing coaching capacity within the team itself is effective – the more people who feel responsible, the more this can help effective team work

Part 2 – Perspectives on Coaching and Team Coaching

Approach to Coaching

  • Development of Team Diagnostic Survey
    • Way to asses key drivers of team effectiveness
    • Tested with leadership team they were working with
    • Evolved to be two things at once: 1) instrument for people who do research on teams, 2) tool for people who intervene in teams
    • Way to diagnose root causes of effectiveness or ineffectiveness; putting yourself in a better position to take action
    • Takes 20-30 minutes to complete, online; asks every member of the team to complete it (at lease 80% of the team members)
    • Detailed and broad diagnostic to look at structure and design of teams
    • Free for those who use it in the course of teaching
    • Reflects decades of research; how to create favorable performance conditions
    • Certification is needed to use it in work with many teams
  • 2009 work on Senior Leadership Teams
    • Fall of “heroic individual” and rise of the leadership team
    • Research-based book but written for leadership teams
    • Team Diagnostic survey was used to collect data
    • Less than 25% of teams studied were less than effective teams
    • Takeaway for coaches: Most senior leaders have never seen an effective team
    • Generational element: shifting understanding of hierarchy
    • Extending coaching beyond leadership teams will allow those rising up to have a developed concept of what coaching is; and a better understanding once they become leaders of how their own work is creating conditions for others to do their work
    • Risk individuals feel being part of teams: own effectiveness can be undermined by what other people accomplish. Who gets credit?
    • Polarity: individual leadership matters, AND group collaboration is important too
    • Should ask a question of whether a certain task really needs a team

Trajectory into Current Work

  • Self-governing teams: doing something that no one individual can do alone
  • Teams are not good at articulating what their clear purpose is
  • Recent work: Helping people who see important problem and recognize that it requires collaboration to deal with it, and who struggle to create an effective leadership team to address it
  • Current research and practice: teams of leaders who come together from different stakeholder organizations in the health system (broadly, including social determinants of health)
    • Public health, government, providers, community organizations
    • How to transform regional systems to support lifelong health in a financially viable way
  • Multi-sector leadership groups, voluntary
  • Research and facilitation combined
  • Developing stewardship teams: developing responsibility for leading on behalf of the whole, not just on behalf of own organizations
  • Building Great Leadership Teams for Complex Problems” comes directly from that work
  • About to release on ReThink Health website “Stewardship Guides” – a public resource showing attempt to identify different stages of system transformation and what leadership team activities need to be at each stage (diagnostics, tools, resources, methods for teams who want to improve)
  • Collaborative infrastructure not in place already in this work – those who see themselves as coaches have great opportunity to contribute their knowledge about teams and system change
  • Has noticed that more and more there is a lot of energy around people wanting to collaborate voluntarily to solve big problems. Has been involved with Marshall Ganz about bringing in community organizing approach, also with Sherry Immediato who ran the Society for Organizational Learning who also works in developing systematic practices of organizational learning for leadership teams to bring their collective intelligence to problems
  • Technology: adds a big layer of complexity to problem solving; how to use whole array of tools to improve communication

Advice for Team Coaches

  • Critical to developing as a team coach is learning to think like a structuralist; to ask question of how well-designed is the team in the first place?
  • Most effective step to take to improve effectiveness of teams is before team is even created: setting direction of the team, inviting the right people, to devise a piece of work that is best done by a team
  • Mental image of team coaching is more around process, dynamics, strategy – this is less than 10% of what contributes to effectiveness
  • Pay attention to timing: there are predictable times in the life of a team when they are ready for team coaching. Punctuated Equilibrium book looks at timeframe of when teams are most open.
  • Debriefing: building a sophisticated process of learning once work is done

Static vs. Fluid Teams

  • Fluidity of teams is a function of organizational pace and perhaps the overuse of teams
  • Learning to create more stability is important: the longer teams are intact the more effective they are; need to log experience with each other

Part 3 – More about Dr. Wageman


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