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

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