What is Relationship Systems Coaching?

This pride of lions represents a relationship system

Relationship systems coaching is concerned with working with a whole team, department or organisation, and the relationships within it, as opposed to focusing on the individual.

It recognises that a system (a group of interdependent individuals with a common purpose or goal) is a discreet entity with its own unique culture, created by the relationships that exist between members and those it interacts with. Just as a pride of lions thrives by skillfully working as one, so does a team, community or marriage.

The Aim of Relationship Systems Coaching

Teams or organisations that operate blindly, unaware of themselves and how they operate are likely to struggle. There is sufficient research that backs up the claim that effective teams not only need a clear purpose and goals, and robust processes, they also need to pay attention to the culture and the way in which its members interact. Relationship systems coaching aims to increase a system’s overall self-awareness so it can be more intentional in the way it goes about its work, ultimately creating an environment where the system thrives. 

How does it work?

Relationship systems coaching helps a system to take a deep dive into what is going on. It helps members to make sense of the intricate nature of the relationships between members, roles that are played out, behaviours between members, and power dynamics that impact upon the way it operates. It also explores other factors that might be impacting on the system for example the impact of an organisation’s wider culture on the way a team operates or the influence of the current political climate or events, as these may have a profound effect on how a team performs. 

Some key Principles of Relationship Systems Coaching

Relationship systems are complex, however, the following are just some of the principles applied when taking a systems approach to coaching teams, partnerships and larger organisational systems.

Deep Democracy – It is usual in any system for some voices to be heard whilst others, often the less popular ones to be ignored or sidelined and majority rule wins the day. Deep Democracy, on the other hand, recognises that whatever opinion or perspective someone holds, it has a value and provides useful information about the system, however unpopular this view might be.There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ perspectives just different ones. Everyone holds a piece of the jigsaw and only when all pieces of the jigsaw are shared, however small some may be, does that team have a complete picture of itself. Deep democracy is the process of ensuring that even the most marginalised views are heard and the wisdom of each view is appreciated.

Views and opinions ‘belong to the system’ – If someone in a team expresses an opinion it is natural to attach that view directly to that person. Taking a systems approach this view is depersonalised. Whilst it may be personal to an individual is an expression of the system as a whole. For example, someone in a team may vocalise that they are unhappy with the way that work is allocated but this view may also be shared by someone else. Because that person is the one to speak up, it may appear that that view ‘belongs’ to them but if that person left the team, the likelihood is that someone else would step into this role and speak up. Sometimes someone may even express a perspective, playing a role of devil’s advocate, but not actually hold that opinion themselves. 

Focus on roles versus individuals – Recognising that roles are necessary for a system and separating them from the individuals who occupy them is a powerful way of understanding a system. People occupy roles rather than being the role and these roles can be occupied by different people at any time. This de-personalisation helps to bring objectivity to understanding the system, creating safety and encouraging learning.

Learning versus blame – when something goes wrong within a team it is a signal that something in the system is not working. When there is blame, there will be increased defensiveness and there is little scope for learning. A systems coaching approach takes a stance of curiosity that enables members of a team to learn about what is going on rather than getting stuck on the unhelpful stance of ‘who is right and wrong'. 

Case Study:  I was asked to work with a customer-supplier system within the public sector which was beset by conflict, with one person being the focus of blame. The starting point was helping this ‘team’ to view themselves as a system and to change their focus from the individuals within the team to the relationships between them.  Once they had done this they started to shift their stance from 'who is to blame' to ‘what can we learn here that will help us?’ Deeper issues impacting upon their performance were surfaced. External financial pressures required a scrutinising role in the team – necessary but unpopular, fulfilled by the member who had been seen as the cause of the conflict. Understanding this enabled an open discussion about how the execution of this role was impacting upon other members and how it could be carried out more effectively.  The impact of a wider culture of blame that negatively role-modelled behaviours for this team was explored with the team recognising that it could create its own culture for more effective working. The team acknowledged the need to spend more time understanding each other’s challenges and appreciating their strengths.

If this article was of interest and you would like to learn more or share your own ideas about relationship systems coaching please get in touch.