Multiplicity theory and team coaching | BoMentis Coaching House

Multiplicity theory and team coaching


The concept that humans are composed not of one single self or personality, but of numerous different “selves” that think and behave differently in response to different stimuli, is now well entrenched (Bern, 1964; Rowan, 1990, 1993). Bachkirova (2011) and Lawrence (2018) have explored the implications of multiplicity theory in the context of one-to-one coaching. However, teams also have personalities, derived from the personality mix of the members (although other factors, such as the type of team task and the narrative outsiders hold about the team, may also contribute to its collective personality).

Team personality is related to team performance in several ways. A number of studies have explored the relationship of the big five personality factors on team performance. Neuman et al (1999) found a difference between the average level of a trait amongst team members, where higher levels of conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to experience were positively related to performance; and higher levels of diversity in the personality traits extroversion and emotional stability were also associated positively with team performance. Peeters et al (2006) found that both enhanced levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness and diversity of these characteristics were associated with higher team performance.  A caveat here is that these studies measure the aggregate of individual personality factors – and this may not be the same thing as a team personality.

Lawrence’s thought-provoking analysis identifies six significant issues for coaches in the context of multiple personalities. To precis his words:

  • The self or pattern of selves that show up in the coaching room is unlikely to represent the full myriad of selves that operate in contexts outside the coaching room… so jumping too quickly into a desired goal for one personality may disengage with others
  • Different environments for coaching may reveal personalities not expressed in the formal coaching session
  • Multi-rater instruments may give misleading data, because responders often only see the subject in one or a few contexts. Coaches should be cautious in interpreting such data!
  • The personalities people express in different social roles may be at different levels of socio-emotional and cognitive development. The box we put someone in in one context may be inappropriate in another.
  • The way that the coach reacts to the client reflects the coach’s own multiple personalities – hence it’s important for the coach to become self-aware of these, and how and when they express themselves
  • “The multiplicity perspective may lead the coach to a more post-modern perspective, a perspective of not-knowing.” This is equivalent to the progressive “letting go” of the coach maturity model.

If we apply this to teams, some inferences include:

  • An apparent consensus around team goals and around the desired outcomes for coaching may blanket a wide variation of opinion and emotional responses.
  • Recommended good practice in team coaching is to coach in pairs (so you observe more in the room) and to observe the team in its “natural” environment – for example, at regular team meetings. An argument can be made for observing the team in as many contexts as possible. For example, how does it react in the presence of customers, suppliers, or more senior managers?
  • It’s common for team coaches to use multi-rater instruments as a starting point for identifying issues, which the team can useful work on to improve performance. To ensure that a sufficiently systemic, multi-personality perspective emerges, this information can be integrated with data from interviews that explore the team narrative from different perspectives and in different contexts.
  • Coaching in pairs allows both coaches space to reflect on which of their selves they are bringing into the room at any point and to invest more mental energy in how they perform together. After all, their two-person team also has multiple personalities!
  • Helping the client team become more self-aware of how the different collective personalities perform and interact is a precursor to enabling the team to become better at coaching itself.

A simple way to reveal some of these different personalities in action is to explore with the team what characterises the way they think and behave collectively when things and going well and they feel confident, versus when they feel under threat. Or what happens when they feel certain versus uncertain. Or in control versus adrift? How do these different situations affect how they react, for example, to risk? What is the story behind these differences and how did it come about? Acknowledging and valuing the different narratives and the personality traits that accompany them can empower the team to make more considered, better choices.

© David Clutterbuck 2018


Bachkirova, T. (2011) Developmental Coaching. Working with the Self. Maidenhead: Open University Press
Berne, E. (1964) Games People Play. The Psychology of Human Relationships. London: Penguin
Lawrence, P. (2018) ‘A narrative approach to coaching multiple selves’, International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 16 (2), pp. 32-41
Neuman, GA, Wagner, SH and Christiansen, ND (1999) The Relationship between Work-Team
Personality Composition and the Job Performance of Teams, Group and Organization Management,  24 (1) 28-45
Peeters. MAG, van Tuijl, HFJM, Rutte, CG and Reymen, IMM (2006) Personality and team performance: a meta‐analysis, European Journal of Personality, 377-396
Rowan, J. (1990) Subpersonalities. The People Inside Us, Routledge, Abingdon
Rowan, J. (1993) Discover Your Subpersonalities. Our Inner World and the People in it, Routledge, Abingdon

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