How I Taught the ‘Team from Hell’ to Trust Each Other (2020)

Manfred Kets de Vries

Virtual team coaching can help turn around dysfunctional teams

Virtual team coaching can help turn around dysfunctional teams.


Effective organisations rely on teamwork, not least because it facilitates problem solving. Many leaders, however, are ambivalent about teams. They fear overt and covert conflict, uneven participation, tunnel vision, lack of accountability and indifference to the interests of the organisation as a whole. Also, more than a few have no idea how to put together well functioning teams. Their fear of delegating – losing control – reinforces the stereotype of the heroic leader who handles it all.


Although teams can generate a remarkable synergy, a number of them do become mired in endless sessions that generate very high coordination costs and little productivity gain. In some corporations and governments, the formation of teams, task forces or committees can even be a defensive act that gives the illusion of real work while disguising unproductive attempts to preserve the status quo.


Overcoming a team’s possible dysfunction very much depends on its members learning how to work together. To enable this, I have learned from experience that team coaching is second to none. By combining the life case study approach with psychometric multi-party feedback material – an intervention methodology I developed – it is possible to create well-functioning teams.


The team from hell


In this Covid era, I have also found that team coaching can be highly effective even when done virtually. Although face-to-face interaction is preferable, especially for the first session, we may not have that luxury for the foreseeable future. Frankly speaking, with much of our lives already lived online, virtual team coaching is here to stay, facilitated by today’s communications technology.


To illustrate my intervention methodology, let us consider one global organisation where I helped a project leader deal with what he called his “team from hell”: nine geographically distant alpha males and females who had never worked together and spent far too much time on power plays.


To prepare for the virtual team intervention, I first read a large number of written reports pertaining to their project. Then I had one-on-one virtual interviews with the team members, as well as with some of their past superiors, peers and other relevant stakeholders who were familiar with the project. This allowed me to get a sense of everyone’s major concerns.


A safe space


Before the virtual team meeting started, I sent out a number of ground rules. Participants had to attend the full length of the meeting; they could not enter or exit at will. Also, they were asked not to multi-task. Muting their mike and turning off their camera was not an option. They had to be fully mentally present or else the meeting would just be a waste of time. Furthermore, to enable a meaningful, reflective virtual team conversation, I made it clear that active listening was part of the “contract” and I was explicit in exactly what was expected of them.


One of the most important roles of the coach is to construct a “safe space” for participants, a place where they can talk about difficult issues, possibly for the first time. Thus, group coaches – using themselves as instruments – need to monitor the moods of the team constantly. This is how they can establish a modicum of trust.


If you are interested in learning more about this topic:

  • KDVI will be running a 6-week open enrolment programme entitled Creating Healthy Cultures for New Ways of Working.
  • We have listened to current leaders needs and have also developed 4 virtual services for individuals and for organisations. 
  • We are designing bespoke client-specific programmes for organisations who wish to take a proactive approach to the transformations they are experiencing. Enquire here for more information.

INSEAD Knowledge, 2020

Read more

Add Comment

Go back

Related content

Good leadership requires self-aware and vulnerable leaders

Why the World Needs Self-Reflective Leaders

The coronavirus crisis facilitates the rise of autocratic and narcissistic leaders just when we least need them.


When asked what the post-Covid world might look like, French author Michel Houellebecq said, “The same – only worse.” While the quip is funny on the surface, there is indeed reason for all of us to wonder where the world is headed.



Published on 29 Jul, 2020

"How to manage brilliant but tumultuous leaders"

Managing Thrill Seekers

Thrill-seeking employees' addiction to risk can create havoc in the workplace. Managed correctly, their fearlessness can be a great advantage to any organisation.

Published on 7 Jul, 2016

Six Steps to Overcome Shame

Six Steps to Overcome Shame

As old as time and very much universal, feelings of shame can lead to self-destructive behaviour in even the best of leaders.

Published on 28 Jul, 2021

Five key lessons for entrepreneurs and leadership

5 Lessons for Impactful Leadership

As an organisation, the Virgin Group has been of great interest to the public and business experts worldwide, especially given Richard Branson’s creative leadership style in running and growing the enterprise. We dive into Professor Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries and Robert Dick’s case titled, “Branson’s Virgin: The Coming of Age of a Counter-Cultural Enterprise,” and explore five key lessons for entrepreneurs and leadership.



Published on 28 Jul, 2020

What Defines Success in the C-Suite?

Published on 24 Sep, 2010

Recognising the Red Flags of Workplace Mental Health

Recognising the Red Flags of Workplace Mental Health

Organisations have a responsibility towards their staff.

Published on 1 Oct, 2020

“Knowing is the easy part; saying it out loud is the hard part.”

How to Coach a CEO

Successful coaching involves working with – not against – an individual’s resistance.

Published on 20 Aug, 2018

Putting Leaders on the Couch

Published on 26 Mar, 2008

"What makes wisdom more important than success and riches is that it enables us to live well"

Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught

The day after becoming the CEO of a company facing turbulent times, David had a dream. In it, while walking on a beach he discovered a bottle. On opening, a genie appeared offering him a wish in exchange for her freedom. Eschewing riches, fame or a long life, David chose the gift of wisdom.


In today’s hyperactive digital age, attaining wisdom is a challenge. With tablets and phones and their apps constantly vying for our immediate attention, it is increasingly difficult to find the time and mental space for making meaningful connections or engaging in the deep conversations, reflection, emotional awareness and compassion, necessary in the pursuit of wisdom.

Published on 4 Jul, 2017

Patience is one of the more difficult challenges of being human

How Leaders Can Cultivate Patience in an Impatient World

Nine ways to develop this important “muscle” and reap its mental health benefits.

Published on 1 Jul, 2020