Creating Coherent Teams
Introducing the Structural Coherence Model
The article introduces some of the foundational elements central to ‘Generative Dialogue’. Generative Dialogue offers a pathway to, and a modus operandi of, coherent groups and teams. What is coherence? How can it be developed?
‘Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much.’
– Helen Keller
The Coherent Team
Everyone recognizes coherent team functioning: the periods of synergy, the delight in being together, the unity of atmosphere, the infectious influence of achievement, the moments of magic when an impasse resolves to satisfy and uplift all.
Such teams can transform corporate fortunes through their unity of purpose and depth of understanding. Their influence on a company’s collective atmosphere is powerful, capable of silently galvanizing corporate coherence, the key to excellence in today’s competitive market.
Yet it is notoriously difficult to create such teams on an ad hoc basis. An appropriate mix of managerial direction and permission can allow a climate in which such groups can flourish. But even then, the magical transformation from individuals with their gritty interests and idiosyncrasies to the coherent team with its supra-individual fusion of differences in a larger unity of purpose may not occur.
In some companies the incoherent team may become the norm with personal interest and infighting creating a climate of distrust, falsifying exchange, and impoverishing the success sought by all. Once such a cycle has been created, it is hard to break.
Reducing Incoherence – Traditional Approaches
Attempts to remedy incoherence have been many. Most have proceeded from the outside in. A simple model of the different levels of human experience (see Fig. 1) suggests why such an approach will be limited.[i] In this model, the outer, fundamental level of environment influences, and is influenced by, individual and group behaviour.
But behaviour is largely a product of the higher-order organizing potential of our skills and capabilities. The ability to acquire and use appropriate skills is in turn subject to the still deeper influence of our conscious and unconscious beliefs and values. Beliefs and values, while determining how we evaluate the behavioural and environmental levels, are themselves subject to a more encompassing influence. They impinge on, and result from, our sense of identity, our sense of who we are.
LEVELS OF EXPERIENCE
BELIEFS & VALUES
This model explains why attempts to affect the team system by addressing outer behavioural or environmental factors are limited: they neglect the impact of the subtler, less evident levels of belief, attitude, and identity.
For instance, a simple approach to solving difficulties in team formation or functioning may invite a departure or relocation of an ill-fitting person or bring in a person to balance or complete an existing mix. Such an approach may shift the team environment by removing obstructing behaviours or meld a better balance of skills, but the team may still remain far from optimum functioning. Deeper, unresolved systemic tensions may well surface again.
Other attempts to engineer successful teams have been more ‘scientific’ For example, we can analyse – with the aid of questionnaires such as that developed by Belbin – the balance of capabilities needed for a coherent team and bring people together with the appropriate profile.[ii]
The problem here is that capabilities congeal around influential beliefs and values, which they also help create. But the belief system which sustains one set of skills may be antipathic to the beliefs and values of others with a different profile. For instance, Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory shows how people with a bent towards ‘convergent’ thinking may function in a way that is antithetical and even unpleasant to those with strongly ‘divergent’ tendencies.[iii]
Similarly people strong in abstract thinking may prefer to process the world through the written word and be poles apart from those with a need for concrete learning or a preference for interaction with others. People often do not appreciate or understand those different to themselves. Hence the carping between departments in a company, the ill-will between accountants and others, between the DP department and the data users, or between engineers and those in, say, sales.
Instruments such as Kolb’s or Belbin’s are valuable, not so much in helping to engineer teams with a range of skills, but in helping people to acknowledge the tremendous practical value of their inevitable differences.
The levels of beliefs and identity are addressed indirectly, with the tacit recognition that one person’s skills are an expression of his or her uniqueness as those of our neighbours are expressions of their uniqueness. We can do better together than apart.
The Structural Coherence Model goes further still in this affirmation of what is.[iv] The model is very simple, with three elements or levels, present in both individuals and groups:
‘Behaviour’ refers to what actually happens concretely in the world and in our sensory experience. The ‘map’ is the internal world of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, etc., which orients and interprets our response to what we encounter. ‘Being’ indicates the overarching existential field, in which our thoughts and behaviour arise and unfold.
When our internal map is coherent, without unacknowledged conflicts and confusions, both ‘horizontally’ (on the same level of experience and across different contexts, such as personally and professionally) and ‘vertically’ (through different levels, from our sense of identity, through to our means of expression in thought and action), then our outer behaviour is powerful and coherent. We express who we are, our whole being, simply, with a force and ‘rightness’ that has a tremendous yet harmonious impact on the world around us.
When we think and act in this integral way, we can say that we are ‘structurally coherent’. Structural coherence reflects internal alignment, firstly, among the different parts of ourselves and, secondly, external alignment with the context in which we find ourselves.
Most people have recollections of experiencing such coherence both in their own lives and in the context of groups and can identify the kinds of qualities enjoyed and expressed at such times – harmony, truth, insight, energy, conviction, well-being, etc.
These qualities are part of a general recognition of a deep sense of the pulse of existence itself, the very essence of our being alive. When this often-fragile sense of being is present in our lives, it guides our thought and action impeccably.
Incoherence in Our Map
Problems arise when our internal map (often as a result of the haphazard programming of our early years) contains conflicts so that part of us may desire or value something that clashes with something else of importance to us. For instance, part of us wants to commit to the goals of our group and part of us fears losing independence.
Often such conflicts result from the presence of borrowed or imposed values of others along with our own. This makes us unsure as to who we really are, what we really want, and how to act comfortably and coherently. These conflicts manifest in incoherent behaviour at both the individual and the collective level.
There may be surface issues – disputes about boundaries, responsibilities, rewards, communication – but these are a symptom not a cause. And treating the symptoms may relieve them, but while the prime cause has not been addressed, the roots of conflict remain.
The structural coherence model encourages us to attend to what is. When we acknowledge and appreciate what is present, conflicts actually move towards resolution. Energy is released for being more effective both alone and with others.
Maintenance of internal conflicts within the individual or within a group requires energy, as does trying not to have conflict. No army stands strong divided against itself. In rejecting what is not wanted (consciously or unconsciously) individuals and groups sabotage themselves.
To acknowledge and accept even incoherent patterns is like using the opponent’s energy in certain martial arts. The destructive force of incoherent patterns is neutralized and the energy becomes available for individual and group creative use. Our strongest impulse is towards wholeness and unity. And this is most powerful when it is inclusive of what is present.
How does the structural coherence model help enhance this acknowledgement and appreciation of what is?
Firstly, it helps raise awareness and attention to what is happening in our communication. The structural coherence model emphasizes the present rather than what has been or has not yet happened.
Through simple questions, such as ‘What is happening now?’ The attention of the individual is brought directly to the present.
At the same time, individual or group functioning becomes the object of attention. This process in one sense makes the individual or group go ‘outside’ itself, thereby creating the possibility of some objectivity and distance in which to evaluate and understand what is going on.
At another level, because it is in effect our awareness of what is happening that becomes the object of attention, the knowing ‘subject’ becomes the object of scrutiny.
The usual gap between who we are and what we know narrows – both separately and collectively.
With this greater awareness of what is happening within and amongst us comes a surprising sense of wholeness and oneness, in which appreciation and constructive cooperation become quite natural.
We may act in different ways and have different maps to our worlds, but we share a common being-in-action, which is not only something personal but present in our common field.
All this is essential to Generative Dialogue.
The Secret Side of Language
Besides this simple acknowledgement of what is, there are a number of practical tools to help generate structural coherence through Generative Dialogue, by uncovering, and engaging with, differences in personal processing.
Simple questioning tools, for instance, can unveil the hidden side of language – the precise and unique internal representation that accompanies almost every word we speak.
Normally, we are like icebergs to each other and even to ourselves, not in the temperature of our relations, but in the great hidden depths of our private minds which are only hinted at by our outer expression and behaviour.
Our guesses from the few hints and suggestions offered by a person’s actions, gestures, and words are often shadows of the truth, widely distorted, crudely simplified, and grossly inaccurate. Too easily we create the equivalent of cardboard cut-outs from flesh and blood people.
So often we hear statements like ‘I can’t understand why John does xyz’. It is true, we do not understand. And full understanding is unlikely unless we come to inhabit the other’s internal world completely. And this we may never do, although we can go far further than we have done by becoming aware firstly of the unique contours to our own maps and secondly of the amazing richness and variety in those of others. It is surprising how easy and enjoyable it is to explore these differences.
A few questions skilfully asked, such as ‘What do you mean by x?’ can be tremendously helpful, particularly once it is clearly realized how uniquely experience is stored in the mind and how crudely language skates like some rudimentary shorthand over the rich resonances of personal experience.
Terms such as ‘happiness’, ‘commitment’, ‘responsibility’, or the ‘organization’ have a kind of dictionary meaning which, while by no means common to everyone, generally permits a feeling of understanding and being understood in conversation. But such words also have an intensely personal imaginative representation that easily precipitates misunderstanding. For words have associated pictures, thoughts, feelings, and sensations – stirrings in the stomach, energy on the inside, murmurings in the mind, expanding and contracting vistas in our inner space.
And not only the major terms by which we define our existence, but the little ones too. Words such as ‘I’, ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘later’ have a unique, concrete set of connotations beyond our usual conscious reach.
Such words, just husks in ordinary communication, conceal a network of associations, images, and intimations. These associations to a large extent create and define the nature, quality, and characteristics of our personal map. And if awareness of the richness of our own map is one avenue to structural coherence, awareness of the variety and qualities of the maps of others helps open collective coherence.
Associative networks are part of the pervasive patterns which structure our personal and collective universes.
They are a product of a deep organizing tendency of the mind, which copes with both the singularity and variety of experience by grouping things according to likeness or difference. We learn new things by associating new elements to old through similarity or contrast. We create by noticing connections we had not noticed before. In analysing we make fine distinctions; in synthesizing we unify fragmentation.
This primary process of grouping, enabling us to organize experience, is reflected in the internal structure of our map. We not only make patterns; we are patterned. Our identity and person is structured in patterns. Surface patterns – such as habits, mannerisms, peculiarities and recurrences of speech – are the often-incomprehensible exposed edge of deeper pervasive patterns. These in turn make us who we are and profoundly influence what we do and how we do it.
Even in our inconsistencies, we are, in a sense, consistent. In being who we are, we recognize ourselves as the same person we have always been. And so do other people. In spite of major changes and transitions in our lives and alterations to the body, we retain ordinarily a sense of identity and recognizably the same behavioural fingerprint to others.
This consistency created by our personal patterning is an essential element of structural coherence. Uncovering personal patterns enlivens our personal coherence. For these patterns are the web and woof of who we are, spreading across the various contexts of our life – home, holidays, hobbies, our labours, likes, and loves – and through the different levels of our experience, uniting our often split personal and professional worlds.
To uncover pervasive patterns – whether our own or another’s – is a joyful and liberating experience. And it is quite accessible, as the necessary tools are inherent in the mind’s natural patterning ability, its tendency to differentiate and synthesize experience.
Careful attention, not just to the content of a person’s speech or behaviour, but to its underlying structure will reveal elements of patterns. Even our possessions, say, a bright gold ring, a Seiko watch, or a personal organizer, have a relationship.
Simple questions, such as ‘How does this relate to that?’ or ‘What are these examples of?’ invite us to perceive the structural unity that connects the apparently unconnected. And asked of the other person such questions invite them to discover the connecting pattern themselves, even if they have not been consciously aware of it till then. By finding connections between elements on one level of experience, the elements are automatically grouped on a higher or deeper level.
From simple patterns, core patterns easily emerge that have a pervasive influence on virtually every part of our lives. To acknowledge and enjoy these deep truths about ourselves is to recognize, ‘Yes, this is me’. It is to feel that every part of our life, past, present, and even future is connected. This sense of wholeness is central to structural coherence.
Coherent Groups and Organisations
Coherence at the individual level stimulates coherence at the group level.
Many of those who founded the large companies which straddle our planet were highly coherent people. Their lives reflected the inherent organizing ability of their coherence. Their core patterns continue to shape the corporate cultures they founded even after their departure.
Coherence communicates through the speech and actions of the coherent, for their patterns are simple and clear, both to themselves and to others.
But coherence also communicates silently.
The old paradigm of isolated minds, separate from each other, and able to objectively explore and investigate the outer world is breaking down. In so many fields, whether semiotics, cybernetics, ecology, the new physics, or economics, a new paradigm of wholeness, unity, and interconnectedness is emerging.
Our consciousness is no exception. It behaves as if it were not just an isolated phenomenon, but a field, which resonates with and is influenced by what is happening in other parts of the field. Consciousness is both individual and collective. The German poet Rilke saw us as pyramids with different summits and a common base in the great matrix of existence. Subjectively, this is our own awareness in its simplest form, our being. When we operate – either individually or as an organization – from this base or closer to it, we are more effective in our actions. At the same time, we are a coherent influence on those around us.
Organizational coherence comes from individual coherence and the emergence of coherent teams. These develop in part through the uncovering of personal coherence and in part through integration in the group of the processes that support individual coherence.
Creating Coherent Groups
Group coherence, like individual coherence, grows when our process becomes more self-reflexive. We are fortunate that human awareness can become aware of its own processing. Not only are we potentially aware of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. But we can even be aware of our own awareness.
Similarly, we can become more aware of our process as a group. Usually, we first become aware of surface content or events. Statements such as ‘I think feelings are running a bit high here!’ ‘Or we seem to be a bit tired here’ reflect this initial awareness of surface events.
The structural coherence model acknowledges the surface behaviours that arise, but encourages us to go to a deeper level and attend to the underlying patterns involved. These patterns are expression of the group map.
Tuning into the group patterns requires a deeper level of collective self-reflexivity. But as a shared awareness of group patterns emerges, we are rewarded with a deeper level of group coherence arising within and through the very being of the group.
When a group becomes more coherent, it is as if there is a greater awareness of the being-awareness shared in the group as a whole.
Coherent group functioning presupposes that the group accommodate all involved in it in a good way. When the group takes a line that alienates or marginalizes even one member, its coherence drops.
Conversely, when one individual takes a stance that leaves the needs and priorities of others behind, group coherence suffers. This typically manifests in a lowering of the energy or synergy within the group, perhaps dullness or fidgeting, or in the emergence of divisive or incoherent behaviour, or even simple draining away of passion and motivation.
When group coherence drops, it is up to its members to recognize that the group is not functioning at the ‘right level’. For the group to find its way to coherence, it may mean the group members overtly acknowledge that things are not working.
This self-referral gesture is often enough to restore coherence to the group. At other times, a more substantial recognition of the patterns being expressed in the group may be required. As the group becomes more aware of its rhythms and patterns, the loss of coherence is less frequent and the return to coherence more automatic.
This means that, for proper functioning, differences have to be more than accommodated. They need to be fully appreciated. On a deep level, divergent values and views have to be acknowledged and even welcomed. This may mean that the coherent group will obey different more intuitive rhythms. With structural coherence things develop with an organic logic. They happen at ‘the right time’. Ripeness is all.
At times, a coherent group may find itself unable to match externally imposed deadlines. Its creativity depends on all members having the space to move towards the solution that is collectively recognized as expressing the truth of the whole group.
Conversely, the coherent group may accomplish things in less time than would be expected, as there is less friction, less ego-display, and greater harmony in the group enterprise. In such conditions, the move to that flush of recognition that, ‘Yes, this is the solution’, is much faster.
Beyond the Coherent Group
The coherent group is a delight to be a part of. Coherent groups in turn influence larger structures within an organization, and by extension the organization as a whole. The coherent company is harmonious and stress-free in its internal functioning and invincible in the market place. It responds perfectly and precisely to what is.
The coherent company thus functions as a centre of coherence in the wider environment in which it finds itself. It is a positive influence on the community around it and a positive economic influence, too. The coherent company is, I believe, the hub of the economy of the future and the future of the global economy.
Dr Peter Wrycza, PhD
This paper was originally published in the professional journal Training Office (1989 ), and partially reworked, under the title ‘Living Awareness in Groups’, into Chapter Thirteen of my book Living Awareness (Gateway Books, Bath, 1997). Further updated, Bali, December 2020.
[i] The model of ‘Logical Levels’ was adapted by Robert Dilts from the work of Gregory Bateson.
[ii] Belbin, Management Teams, Why They Succeed or Fail, Heinemann, 1981
[iii] David A Kolb, Experiential Learning, Prentice Hall, 1984
[iv] The structural coherence model was developed by Gene Early, one of the first trainers to bring Neuro-Linguistic Programming to Europe in the 1980s.