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Claire Jarvis is a specialist coach, trainer and mediator member in the ASM Plus Workplace, Employment and Investigation, and Civil and Commercial teams. This is Claire’s inaugural ASM Plus blog.

Situation

Family businesses often have interesting team dynamics and, in this case, the family members in the business concerned not only work together but also all live under the same roof. As a result, there was a blurring between roles between the family at home and the roles the individuals had in the business. In working with the family, as the ASM Plus team relationship coach, I aimed to surface the issues and help the family to discuss them openly and find their own ways to address them.

Outcome

The family members had an excellent discussion about the issues around their roles in the business which they all acknowledged they would have found it hard to have without the help of a third party. A number of follow-up actions were agreed to strengthen the team dynamic in the business and they have a better appreciation of their value to the business in terms of the unwritten roles they fulfil, alongside their formal roles.  In feedback, they reported they had all found the conversation stimulating and it had given them a lot to reflect upon. I am confident that the coaching I delivered was a catalyst for changes to further strengthen their business.

Scenario

Matt, Debbie, Josh and Noah are father, mother and brothers as well as partners in a profitable, niche business. Noah is still in full-time education. The family is very much at the heart of the business and even the business name is a composite of letters from all of their names. Their marketing and social media posts constantly refer to family members and the different types of product they produce are named after relatives. For now, only family members work in the business. They are all close and get on extremely well. However, they recognise that being a family unit and running a business together brings challenges. They have big ambitions for the company and are aware of the potential for damaging divisions if they do not treat their relationships in the business as distinct from their family dynamic. Team relationship coaching is an efficient and cost-effective way to work on these relationships, which are so critical to the day-to-day operation of the business and, ultimately, fundamental to its long-term success.

The coaching methodology I use is Organisation and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC), which focuses on a team or organisation as a human relationship system to reveal new information and release the generative energies within the team. This enables the team to improve its interaction and optimise its intelligence and resources, which ultimately leads to higher performance and better business outcomes. It is widely used by commercial organisations wanting to create competitive advantage by optimising the collective intelligence and creativity inherent in any human relationship system.  It shifts attention away from the traditional focus on individual performance to the performance of the whole team entity.  Each system (or team) is unique and my job as coach is to reveal the system to itself. The system has the answers but it needs help revealing them, particularly by ensuring that all the voices of the system are heard. Democracy is a fundamental cornerstone of this coaching methodology.

I chose a number of ORSC tools to use with the family during a two-hour session. There was no dispute and so, unlike in mediation, everyone was in the same room and could hear everything the others said. The main focus of the session was on something that ORSC calls Lands Work. This looks at relationship structures and gets people to explore and appreciate each other’s perspectives. It aims to create empathy for differences in the system/team and it is a great tool for encouraging democracy, recognising that everyone’s experience is equally valid from their perspective and there is no single truth, as everyone’s perspectives are different.

I started by asking each family member in turn a series of questions to explore their place in the business.  In ORSC language, their position in the business is referred to as their Land, using a land as a metaphor for someone’s unique experience and perspectives. Questions include, “What do you love about your Land?”, “What’s difficult in your Land?”, and “What do you want the others to know about your Land?”

These and other simple questions enabled each of them to talk openly to the coach in front of the others and revealed interesting perspectives about their roles and, in particular, the crossover between their roles in the family and their roles in the business. Effective roles are critical to the smooth functioning of relationship systems and, as a coach, I was listening for evidence of the roles held by the family members in this business being problematic or burdensome.  If people confuse any of us as individuals with the role we perform, whether it’s in our job description or because we’ve become associated with a certain task that we always end up doing on behalf of the system, we can become locked within a stifling set of expectations.  Role issues that can arise are role nausea, role confusion, a need for new roles to be created and poorly occupied roles. In our discussion, there were a couple of examples that pointed to role issues. For example, Josh revealed how he finds it frustrating when visiting customers that the customers will tend to talk to Matt as soon as they become aware that he is the father. He felt this was potentially holding him back in terms of his contribution to the business. It was recognised that addressing this role confusion issue was critical to Josh’s ability to cultivate customer relationships, which are a key part of his role in the business’s growth story.

In addition, Debbie talked about how, as Managing Director, she is the only one who ever thinks about cleaning the business premises, which might suggest that the system was expecting her to perform a role that she does at home in the business as well. This to me was another example of role confusion edging towards role nausea, which occurs when someone becomes heartily sick of playing the same role. The open discussions with Josh and Debbie brought new awareness to the team and enabled them to start looking at potential role changes to address the issues.

Another powerful tool I decided to use was an appreciation loop, which is another simple technique to bring awareness to a system. Each team member was invited to tell me what they appreciate about the other members of the team. By talking to me as the coach rather than the individual they are appreciating, team members seem to find it easy to show appreciation for another person in the room in a way that might feel awkward if they were talking to them directly. In this instance it was particularly noteworthy listening to Matt and Josh talk about Debbie and their huge appreciation for her strategic input and careful analysis of their ideas to grow the business. All systems need people within them to play what ORSC refers to as inner roles not related to job title. For example, most businesses will benefit from having someone who is the visionary, someone to play devil’s advocate (by questioning decisions) and someone to be the peacemaker.  In the earlier discussion, Debbie had not seemed very confident about her contribution to the business and the comments that came out of this exercise were a powerful endorsement of her unique skills and contribution from what are effectively the inner roles she plays in this team, which are clearly greatly valued by the other partners.

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