Shifting the negatives to positives in Judgement-Blame cycles by Rosemary Harper (guest)

I was recently asked by a peer colleague, Katy Tuncer,  a question over email, amongst others, 

I've observed a cycle of behaviour when coaching senior teams in conflict recently - where judgment and blame reinforce each other. I see people enter conversations/interpret emails/make points in meetings from a defensive and judgmental perspective. Identifying common goals, making commitments together, making/accepting requests about behaviours etc. have helped break the cycle to some extent for my clients. I was wondering if there is an established model or someone has written something in the literature about this judgement-blame cycle?

Broadly speaking, the description shared by Katy in what she described as the judgement blame cycle is something I have frequently worked with in senior teams, and also within functions (e.g. the marketing team blames the sales team, who blames the production team etc.) Each of us responded from our experiences. 

I shared from my experiences that unfortunately I have not found a single model that works for all occasions, similar to the others. It also offered me an opportunity to quickly review and reflect on my own practice, and I shared what I believed to be my top eleven ways of working with the ‘judgement-blame’ cycle over the years particularly in team coaching. 

All of these are simply entry points into getting the team to name their issues, and then finding an appropriate way of responding to them. 

My top eleven ways of working with the ‘judgement-blame’ cycle

1. At the contracting stage, I spend a lot of time understanding the circumstances, the team’s purpose and objectives, what they do well, less well etc. What has led them to team coaching? (Often there is an issue).

Ideally, I will meet each team member prior to working with the team, and use a structured format to understand:

  • their individual role and key objectives, and who else needs to be involved in order to achieve their goals

  • the purpose of the team from their viewpoint

  • how the team as a whole adds value

  • what it does best

  • what it does least well

  • what one or 2 things, if changed, would make the most difference to the team

If there are blame/judgement cycles, this will normally become apparent at this stage. This will give me a clue about how best to proceed with the whole team .I may often feedback anonymised team results at relevant times during team coaching.

If I cannot meet everyone individually in advance, I may start a team coaching intervention asking them to gain more clarity by answering some of the above questions. It is surprising how often there is disagreement about the team’s shared purpose, and without that, they are likely to become frustrated at team interactions.

2. Sometimes it is about unclear accountabilities 

At a team session, I will ask people to share their accountabilities, together with who else in the team needs to be involved, and how. (I will sometimes use a simple matrix - joint decision/consult/ inform). They will need to prepare in advance, but this often throws up interesting (and judgemental) discussions.

3. In my contracting with the whole team, I will talk about team process and how they work together. 

We might explore the difference between conversation, discussion, debate and dialogue. I will ask them what mode they usually operate in, and how successful it is. I will ask for permission to call time out if I feel something is happening in the team process that needs further exploration. Quite often, they will take over for themselves, with team members calling for a time out before I do.

4. I often ask teams if they would allow me to observe them in normal working mode, asking them to pick a difficult/contentious issue. 

I will explain that I will be observing key moments, ‘air time’, body language, language used. For each person I will keep a rough record of air time. I keep a record of the amount of time spent in positive ways - e.g questioning, encouraging, exploring options etc. versus negative time spent defending, blocking, disagreeing etc. 

My normal rule of thumb is a 3 to 1 ratio of positive to negative in an effective team.

I will then provide feedback. The key here is to get them to take over the feedback session. They normally will be a bit defensive at first but questions like, “What went particularly well? What were the less successful parts? What was happening then?” I keep very detailed notes and timings which allows me to give specific feedback if necessary. During this time, the coach must remain very open and calm, even if the team is at first a bit defensive or angry. Building the trust of the team first is key.

5. Sometimes it is a personality issue. 

I know many see it as ‘old hat’, but I have found MBTI a helpful tool to start non judgemental discussion about why people see things differently, and sources of conflict. I have also found Belbin useful - and both have given teams and individuals ‘aha’ moments. It also gives them a language they can use to surface issues.

6. Trust within the team is always key

Different people, and certainly, different nationalities, will often differ in what they need in
order to trust others. I have used a questionnaire called ITTI (International Trust in Teams) with both multi- national teams and national teams. It will start a discussion about what is going on in the team, and why people may feel a lack of trust.

7. Working with clear disagreements

If there is a clear disagreement about particular decisions or courses of action, I will often ask the team to select 2 or 3 potential actions, and then work with all 3. I make it clear that their job at this point is not to make a decision on which one. Every person in turn, including the proposer, can only give the advantages of each option. Any negative comments will not be allowed.

After 2 or 3 rounds, everyone has then to go through all the negatives of each option. Very often, a way forward becomes clear. If they decide one option looks best, I will then ask them to look at the advantages of the other 2 options, and try and find a way of incorporating them into their preferred option. 

This stops early polarising of views, makes everyone look at the advantages and disadvantages of each option, and hopefully ensures that something from each option is included in the final solution. A variation on this is to take the most diametrically opposed choices, and work with those. Often, a third way spontaneously occurs.

8. If the team is feeling spiky

I might ask them to do a sort of negative ishkawa. Whatever the question/issue, I ask them to find the worst possible solution/outcome, and then highlight all the awful things within that. They normally have a bit of fun with this, and this allows them to think what needs to change to turn all the negatives to positives.

9. If I can, I like to have a mix of team interventions and individual coaching.

 I make it clear that all the individual coaching is confidential - but that during this confidential coaching, we will be covering team issues, and how the individual feels within the team. Here, I can offer feedback from what I have observed, and we can discuss that. Where there is a clear dislike/power struggle, this can be explored. 

I have found that for some people, perceptual positions have helped at this point. If it is a clear power struggle - we can discuss the implications. If they decide to change their approach, I can offer to observe at the next team session, and give them feedback.

10. When the team coaching is a little more advanced, I may ask individuals to give each other feedback 

This may start along the lines of, “What I really value about you as a team member, and what one or two things you might change to make an even greater contribution?” 

I will sometimes do this in a circle (in which case I keep out of the circle), and sometimes gallery style, with a flip chart for each person. Before we look at the results, I talk about the value of feedback. I also make it clear that the recipients cannot challenge the feedback, but only respond with what pleases me, what surprises me, and what I intend to work with.

I have also used a variation where the team gives feedback in pairs (which rotate). This obviously can be quite powerful, and may well expose some of the judgemental aspects, and I will do it when I feel the team is ready.

11. Pictures and metaphors can be very helpful

I sometimes ask team members to produce banners, which include pictures on their values, how they see themselves, and how they think others may see them. I will also ask them to draw an image that represents the team. We then share and talk about the images.

Reflecting on my approaches

My approaches may all sound very process driven, but the key with each and every one of them is in building the quality of relationship between team and coach, so that you can ask the difficult questions, and get them to trust you enough to take them to challenging places. All these tools are vehicles to allow you to do that. 

This can also be uncomfortable for the coach too, because there are no easy answers, and often your role is to hold the tension until they feel brave enough to name what is going on.

Question: How have you managed to hold similar tensions within team and individual coaching?

To connect with Rosemary:


Rosemary is the Joint Managing Partner at Keary Harper LLP. She has coached for 23 years at board and executive level in the UK and internationally. She has led major coaching interventions, and coached many management teams, and has accrued well over 10,000 hours of face to face coaching. Her business background includes becoming the first female director at BAe Systems.  

Rosemary is an Accredited individual and team coach with APECS.