Stirling Coaching and the University of Sydney

Coaching Individual and Team Performance: Facilitating Team Dynamics

A Case Study from the Theory and Method in Biosciences Group, Charles Perkins Centre

Even in successful environments, a black swan can appear to shake the status quo and derail a good thing.

As close-knit, high-performing groups of people evolve; team members come and go and personal aspirations change, some backbone of process and communication are necessary to retain group functionality and sustain performance.

The Theory and Method in Biosciences Group operating out of the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, brings the philosophical investigation of science into the fold of the scientific research disciplines. Led by Professor Paul Griffiths, the group has been consistently successful in attracting research funding, with $6.3M awarded over the past decade.

The currency of performance in academia is the quality and quantity of research papers published in prestigious academic journals. According to Professor Griffiths, the success of the team he leads has its roots in the quality of academic debate between the PhD students and others in his fold.

Weekly, Paul chairs a meeting rather like an Oxbridge tutorial, where his group come together to present their theories for challenge and debate. This debate has extended into social circles thanks to the friendships formed from deeply shared interests and mutual respect.

The receipt of significant grant funding in 2018 allowed Professor Griffiths to double the size of his research team, bringing greater diversity in academic thought as well as personal and professional background. Wanting to keep the positive dynamics of his tight-knit group intact, Dr Griffiths invited Performance and Executive Coach Claire Stirling (www.stirlingcoaching.com) to facilitate explicit discussion on performance goals and career aspirations, as well as develop more tangible processes to ensure appropriate information sharing and team working within the group.

‘We hire people from a range of disciplines to get the mix of skills needed to conduct the work we are funded for’ says Professor Griffiths. ‘As the team grows, we can no longer rely on organic communication. We need to more actively manage individual contributions and the process of paper authorship.’

‘Rather than muddle through and hope for a good outcome, we wanted a planned and thoughtful
approach to establishing a multi-person, multi-disciplinary research programme in philosophy. To
help facilitate this, we engaged the services of Claire Stirling, an experienced performance coach and
facilitator.’

Claire worked with Professor Griffiths to understand his aspirations and expectations as Team Leader, which could then be shared with the team. Leaders typically have a good compass on their direction, valuing working with an Executive Coach to draw out and test their thinking. Invariably there are alternative options to be considered in addition to mapping out at a high-level the steps to be taken for change, pre-empting and mitigating potential pitfalls.

Most leaders recognise that, at least in the initial stages of change, they are not always best positioned to draw out the concerns and aspirations of their team. A trusted facilitator provides a helpful go-between who can surface issues without breaking confidentiality.

Typically, information shared with the facilitator is information that, in time, people are comfortable airing openly. However, when something different is in the air, people are wary of what that might mean for them. In these initial stages of change, sharing information in the knowledge that a conversation will be kept confidential opens the door to trust. Once participants see that what they have shared is treated in confidence, yet their concerns raised and acted on, trust and collaboration build in a cumulative spiral.

Conversely, to solicit information and not communicate what has been found, outline what will be done and the role of individuals in this process, is to kill change.

Although the leader, at least in the initial changes, may not be best placed to draw out issues with their team, they are vital in acknowledging and reflecting back to personnel what has been learned, what will be done and facilitating ownership of solutions.

As Leader of the Theory and Method in Biosciences Group at the University of Sydney, Professor Griffiths took ownership of the team’s feedback, paving the way for the group to further develop collaboration as well as considerations for his own role as leader.

Claire Stirling was periodically invited into the group over the duration of a year, which kept up momentum as well as maintaining a ‘health check’ on the group’s dynamics and development. Deeper trust was placed in Claire’s role as team members experienced how information was handled and change introduced, with all parties gaining confidence over time. Towards the end of the engagement, even the most reticent were pro-actively requesting to meet with Claire on her visits, with frank and open coach/mentoring sessions bringing benefits all round.

Quote Professor Griffiths: ‘Having an independent facilitator encouraged open discussion and sharing of individual career goals. Each of us has incorporated our personal and collective performance goals into our University Performance Development Plans. Underpinning these, we have also developed and agreed a framework for collaboration and performance management as it applies to the circumstances of the Theory and method in Biosciences Group’.

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