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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Feb 2020

When teams have baggage

So much of my work with executive teams focuses on the future. What is our shared purpose? What are we trying to achieve? How will we change? But what if it’s necessary to talk about the past in order to unlock the future?

When teams have baggage, sometimes we need to open it up.

Many coaches make a point of steering away from talking about the past. They ask teams to leave their baggage at the door. That’s OK in principle. But sometimes the baggage of the past is still so present in the everyday experience of a team, that it’s blocking progress. Team coaches need to have the skill to help the team, safely, go there. Here are some scenarios to explain what I mean:

  • A difficult ethical decision had to be made by the team. The decision-making got emotional and personal. Those who came down on different sides still feel misunderstood by each other.
  • A structural change means a peer has stepped into the top seat. Neither the leader nor their ex-peers have aired how they feel about this power shift.
  • A big character has left the team. They had an enormous influence and no-one has really talked about what’s different now they have gone.
  • The team has been through an incredibly tough time during which regrettable things were said, and trust got damaged. People are still carrying their hurt.
  • The business context has changed but the team are still working in a way that served them well a year ago. That way of working needs recognising and honouring before it can be changed.

Many team leaders are afraid to open up the past. What if we can’t get stuff back in the box? But in my experience, carefully facilitated conversations about where we’ve come from can create enormous shifts in team culture and performance.

Some ground rules for conversations about baggage include:

  • Assuming that whatever happened in the past happened for sensible reasons at the time and with good intent.
  • Being willing to acknowledge that individual team members’ experiences of the past are true for them, even if they were felt very differently by others.
  • Being willing to understand that we are all having an impact on one another, whether it’s the impact we intend or not. And knowing that sometimes we need to repair broken trust.

Tricky conversations about the past are useful practice for the future. Great teams need to have difficult conversations about trust. Trust is a dynamic thing. It gets stretched, out of whack and sometimes broken. Talking about it and mending it is part of what High Performing Teams do.

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