What makes a great team? Lessons from an unusual source


My work as a strategic consultant and team coach takes me into many organizations working with leadership and operational teams. I have worked in global banks, the health and education sectors, hi-tech industry, the retail and manufacturing sector across the globe.   I have coached hi-performing and low performing teams and truly dysfunctional teams. However on a recent project I discovered a truly exceptional team.

A Hospice Fund Raising Team Fundraising for a hospice is a strange task; How do you motivate people to give to something many of us do not want to think about? I asked the Team Leader Kevin these questions who laughed and said “ “Relentlessly raising large sums of money for an organisation that specialises in death and dying. Hardly the next Virgin TV commercial is it?” The key message when fundraising for a Hospice is to emphasise compassion and caring at the most vulnerable time, the end of our life. As we all know someone close who has died, this message is well received.   The real challenge this Hospice teams faces are the contradictory and polarity of emotional states they need to be in. To be a fundraiser you need extrovert and creative hi-energy, Fundraising teams like sales teams generally, operate in the basic assumption of Fight-flight (Bion 1961).   This means that they operate with a fight to win mentality, they have to meet targets, and be better than competing charities. When they get a large donation or hit a target, its high fives, they feel good. Most fundraising and sales teams work in fight-flight mode all the time, however in the Hospice team they have to do something that is really difficult, and switch off fight-flight mode to also show compassion, caring and real sensitivity, as they are constantly dealing with relatives who have recently lost someone very close. Kevin tells another story:

I remember my first day working for St Nicholas Hospice Care well. A two week induction timetable had been handed to me to spend time with the various departments to learn more about the care we provide, and the needs we face together. Half way through the day, I was asked to go to reception to handle a donation. As I approached the reception desk, there was a middle aged man clutching a plastic supermarket carrier bag with what looked like an A4 frame in it. We shook hands, he introduced himself as Bill, and off we went into a small quiet room to talk. Bill’s wife had died on our inpatient unit the previous week, and he had come in to hand over the in memory donations to us from her funeral. After handing me the donations, Bill opened the carrier bag and showed me a beautiful A4 framed picture of his wife on their wedding day. The lady in the photo looked like a 1950’s film star in a stunning black and white picture. Bill beamed with pride as he showed it to me, and then began to cry quite uncontrollably.   Although I’d experienced emotional situations before in my fundraising career, for some reason this really got me. Perhaps it was because I (or maybe more accurately, my wife) was planning our own wedding at the time. I could relate to the huge sense of loss this must have been for Bill, and how he would face life without his wife. I also felt the warmth and gratitude Bill had for the part the hospice played in helping his wife die with dignity.

I met with the whole fundraising team to facilitate a session to give them space to reflect on their work. I was really impressed by their emotional maturity and emotional intelligence. They were constantly moved to tears by the experience of receiving donations from loved ones left behind. They talked to large groups about the work of the hospice and their fundraising activities knowing that they had to be upbeat to raise funds, but totally sensitive to the audience whom death would be very close. This team was energetic, very creative, hugely successful raising 70% of the hospice budget year upon year. I asked them how they dealt with the sadness and pain they soaked up in their day to day work and they revealed how they were constantly supporting each other, laughing together and being sensitive and supporting each other when it got tough. This team was special, dynamic and sensitive, they experienced on a daily basis through feedback and tears the good work the hospice did, and this energised them.

Leadership Lessons I worked with Kevin and his team to summarise their strengths, and these key areas below are lessons for all team leaders.

  • Camaraderie. Each team member has an individual target to achieve, but they huddle together to reach the wider goals truly working as one team
  • Creativity. It isn’t all about tombola’s and summer fetes, although they still have their place. Digital media, innovative and quirky events tailored for specific audiences, regular interaction with supporters is crucial to inspire a community to keep on giving.
  • Autonomy. The team has the ability to make choices without being controlled heavily. Minimum red tape.
  • Empathy. We aren’t all about the money. I get referred to as the Head of Sales by the personnel director, but there aren’t many sales people I know that reduce people to tears when they make a sale.
  • Connected to the wider mission

It’s a complicated role to juggle, fundraisers are the face of the organisation, ambassadors, and often signposting people to family support services; counselling, bereavement courses for children, clinical expertise, community nursing, day therapy. An understanding and deeper appreciation of these services is essential…as well as the knack of being able to raise a serious amount of money.

Coaching Lessons I have coached and consulted to this Hospice for two years, working with the Nurses, Drs, managers and support workers. The fundraising team is an inspiration that other teams can learn from, and when coaching team leaders myself, I focus on their clarity of purpose, how they live the values, and look for the ability to be open and share emotional challenges and celebrate success. This Fundraising team excels in all of these areas.

To donate to St Nicholas Hospice Care contact Kevin at Kevin.clements@stnh.org.uk or Tel: 01284 715595

The Collective Unconscious

The Collective Unconscious   Part 3 of a blog on the European Union Elections


The electorate across Europe (43 million voters) managed to collectively (and unconsciously) achieve quite a sophisticated achievement. Despite the dangerous swing to the extreme right in many countries, (and there were also gains for radical voices on the anti-European left) the overall vote delivered a win for middle ground politics. This means that collectively Europe retained a majority of pro-European MEP’s whilst at the same time strongly signaling a discomfort at the way things are going.   The collective message is this: dangers lurks if nothing changes i.e. more unemployment, austerity and also stifling centralisation that dis-empowers citizens feeds the discontent that can be exploited by the far right……it’s time to act!

The overall result wasn’t planned or rationally organised, perhaps it was just the way things turned out, or perhaps some form collective unconscious organising process took place.   There are two ways to read any collective vote, or for that matter any group organizing process. Firstly as fragmented parts e.g. why did France swing to the right but Italy didn’t?  Why did this part of the group do this, and that part do that? The scientific method is reductionist, it ignores the whole and only looks at the parts with a particular rationalist gaze.   But there is another way to read a collective vote or a group process, and this through beginning with the whole and trying to understand what it means, what the parts contribute to the whole. For example, across Europe moderate voters abstained from voting in some regions, letting the far right win the vote; yet enough moderate voters turned out in other regions to give power to the centre. This delivered a whole that expresses a collective voice ‘we as a whole are worried, angry and frustrated, but we want the centre to hold and fix the mess. As this was not consciously planned or even acknowledged; there must be some unconscious aspects to how it arrived as the outcome.

This collective unconscious expression is rarely reflected upon. Yet maybe it is worth thinking about the collective unconscious processes that create this result, something that is not accounted for in the media or within political analysis.

Collective Unconscious

Carl Jung discussed the ‘Collective Unconscious’’but he was referring to universal archetypes we collectively carry within us as individuals, rather than group or social unconscious processes that occur between us.   The Collective Unconscious I am more interested in emerges from the work of Bion and Menzies-Lythe from the Tavistock tradition.   Bion wrote about three unconscious group basic assumption states he observed within groups; Fight-flight (FF), Dependency (D) and Pairing (P). F-F occurs when the group always looks for an enemy to which they displace their anxiety and energy; feeling under attack and the need to fight or flee a fantasy enemy takes them away from the developmental work they should be doing.   D is when the group is paralysed by its dependency on a leader figure, the group gives up its autonomy, thinking and creativity, and is always waiting for the leader to tell them what to do. P occurs when the group always looks for the next idea or person they can pair with to save them. However, each time a new leader or idea arrives, it is never the right one, and another one is sought. These defensive unconscious states, can be mobilised by leaders; for example, in the European Elections Marie Le Pen and anti-immigration parties mobilise the unconscious collective mentality of Fight-flight. This primitive emotion, names the immigrant as the enemy, and argues for fortress France/UK/Denmark. In Greece the immigrants are attacked physically.   These defensive group unconscious states displace anxiety, and undermine any developmental task that needs to be done, for example – in Europe – fighting immigrations avoids the developmental task of improving the economy, creating jobs, building a civilised society.     Menzies-Lythe observed collective unconscious processes in the workplace.Her famous example was how the nursing profession organised their work in ways that acted as a social unconscious defence to protect them against the anxiety of working with the difficult emotions they faced. For example, what seemed like a rational way of organising the work, undermined efficiency and good patient care. But what it did achieve was the avoidance of close engagement with the patients emotional experience e.g. patients were not called by name but by their illness, de-personalising the patient, and the nurses were depersonalised through the uniformed quasi military way of working.

These group and organizational collective unconscious processes are rarely acknowledged, difficult to prove, but self-evident to observers who pay attention to these processes.  In the era of new technologies that provide mass-individualised communication through social media, the unconscious speaks through these collective-individual engagements with a growing voice…… perhaps we need to spend more time trying to make sense of the libidinal and emotional economies, driven by individual and collective unconscious processes , that are swirling around our virtual networks and physical spaces.

Leadership Lessons: Try to see patterns in the organization, try to read how the collective unconscious is speaking as a whole.   Usually a problem is reduced to belonging to an individual or is a departmental issue that needs solving, but another way of seeing it is as a symptom of a wider issue. Try to think about the ‘problem’ individual or department carrying something unconsciously on behalf of the whole.   For example, quite often, a problem person is replaced, or department re-organised but the problem simple re-emerges elsewhere. Try to imagine the organization as a person with an unconscious –what is the unconscious trying to tell you? To study collective unconscious processes in groups, is a very powerful learning experience[1] and leaders without some understandings of these processes are severely restricted in undertaking their role.

Coaching lessons: Listen to the coachee as an individual, and listen to them as a conduit of the whole, for we all carry a part of the collective unconscious of an organization within us, David Armstrong refers to this as the ‘Organization in the mind’[2]. Listen to the individuals emotions, thinking and engagement (or lack of it) then step back and imagine them as fractal of the whole organization.   Emotions and culture get projected into us, i.e. we carry our own ‘stuff’, and we also carry ‘stuff’ unconsciously from put into us from others, and then act this out. A great coach helps individuals understand these unconscious processes; helping the individual sort out what belongs to them, and what is being projected into them from the wider system. A psychodynamic coach gets beyond problem solving and goal setting to address these unconscious processes.

[1] Group relations conferences are unique in elaborating the conscious and unconscious dynamics of leadership and management in organisations. http://www.tavinstitute.org/what-we-offer/professional-development/leicester-conference/

[2] http://www.tavinstitute.Organization in the mind. org/what-we-offer/professional-development/leicester-conference/

The Meaning of Fast-Tracking a Saint


The path to sainthood for John Paul II was the fastest in modern history, raising eyebrows among traditionalists for packing a painstaking process that can sometimes take centuries into nine incredibly short years.[1]

Whether John Paul II should or shouldn’t be a saint isn’t the issue I am addressing here. This blog addresses the question of why the Catholic church has fast-tracked this process and the social meaning it reveals. I have been long intrigued (and amused) at the scientific-rational approach used to make the decision as to who can be legitimized as a Saint.   When a rational approach is used to judge whether a miracle is “instantaneous, lasting and clearly attributable to divine intervention”, the church is always going to be in trouble, because it is using a modernist/rational frame to identify a non-rational/spiritual phenomena. If we look at this process in reverse, it is the equivalent of letting priests pray over a new airoplane to pass it as safe to fly… pray for our safety by all means, but even the most devout would want a rational safety check before flying.   The modernist/rational domain, and the religious/spiritual domain cannot be fully separated, for religion exists in the modern context, and has to operate with reference to modern/rational thought- albeit always with some healthy tension between the domains. When this works well, sacred space can alert society to subjective truths, to all that is beyond the functional and rational, and help us reflect on how we live personally, collectively and with the natural world. Likewise the modern/rational domain can alert the sacred domain when it’s faith becomes distorted or perverse, in ways that need challenging in a modern pluralist society. Both domains must maintain enough difference from each other, because if they stray too far into each others territory both can become dangerously distorted. We see this occur when religious fundamentalism takes a leading role in modern politics (no matter whether in the middle east or the USA) the results are at best a mess, and at worst bring forth disaster. Likewise in the workplace beware of spirituality being advocated by leaders and writers who claim it increases productivity, employee engagement and improves the bottom line[2]. This is a perverse use of spirituality however authentically intended, and is another example of how one domain gets distorted when being used in the wrong space.

Today we live in a consumer society, a world where short-termism rules and instant gratification is demanded, and it is in this context that the Catholic church has short-circuited the process to fast-track John Paul II to sainthood. At his funeral calls for making him a saint were already being demanded by the zealous faithful….immediate gratification of their desires were soon to be fulfilled.    By omitting the need for a second miracle (two are needed to become a saint, John Paul II has one), and rushing the process achieves two things:

1)       It undermines the so-called modern/rational process for selecting a saint. Pope Francis is saying ‘this rational criteria for choosing a Saint is nonsense, its clear John Paul II is a Saint, so lets not go through a process that is mere pretence to prove it.’

2)      It aligns the ‘eternal and sacred’ process of choosing a Saint, with our modern, consumer society that is governed by instant gratification and short-termism in all things.

With the first point I believe progress is being made, as it undermines the need for rational verification of sainthood, moving towards the position whereby the sacred and secular are differentiated. With the second point I believe the Catholic church is stepping into dangerous territory. John Paul II is very marketable for the church, and his rapid rise to sainthood will give the church short-term leverage and kudos, whilst creating problems for the future. By reacting to consumer demand for his instant sainthood, and banking his immediate charismatic popularity, means that similar demands will just grow and grow and the church will look more and more like the materialist, consumerist and short-termist society, it claims it wants to change. The Washington post already reports talk of fast-tracking others “to pave the way to the quicker elevation of potential blockbuster saints such as Mother Teresa”.  As we see, Sainthood could soon begin to mimic modern, celebrity culture.

We need sacred spaces that open up our lives beyond rationality, functionalism, efficiency and beyond the modern faith of materialism and consumerism. Scientific-rationalism doesn’t account for the mystical, ethereal and the beauty and love that cannot be measured or accounted for in the market place.   The whole point of spirituality and religion is to open us to a different space, an eternal space, a liminal space, a ritualistic space, a holy space…. call it what you want, and access it how you choose, but this ‘spiritual space’ is one that should be protected and we lose it at our peril.

Leadership Lessons

1)       Leaders know your domain: don’t use the wrong philosophy or belief system in the wrong place.

2)      Think of the impact of short-term gains. Instant gratification will appease some people but may store longer term problems (i.e. the financial crisis!). A major difference between family owned and commercial businesses is the time-span issue. Family businesses think about the next generation and offer a better model of how commercial businesses should be run.

Coaching lessons

1)       Help leaders map their domain, if you hear them talking spirituality in order to gain personal kudos or more from their employees, challenge them!

2)   Push leaders to reflect on the longer term consequences of a short-term intervention.   And don’t collude with them to get your own instant gratification as a coach!



[2]See Leadership a critical text Western 2013 Sage Pubs, for full critique on spirituality at work.