Applying Bowen Theory to Agile Coaching

Enabling Meaningful Sustainable Coaching Outcomes

Hrishikesh Karekar
9 min readApr 1, 2024

Murray Bowen Family System Theory developed in a decade or so following the second world war, provides a comprehensive theory that explains people’s behavior and emotionality in groups. One of the main hypotheses behind the Bowen Theory is that human beings and their families function as one emotional unit or system. This makes it easier to understand individual family members when they are viewed within the context of their family ties and human relationships. This is often referred to as a family system or unit ​[1]​.

Originally developed for the family system, Bowen theory has found applications in several contexts like volunteer, religious, and business organizations and the people who work for them ​[2]​. Katherine Kott in her paper,” Applying Bowen Theory to Work Systems” ​[3]​, provides an excellent perspective to support OD consultants promote and enable systemic change in the organization by better managing themselves and seeing the emotional forces at work in the client system.

Agile Coach roles, responsible for enabling systemic change in the organization towards agility based on agile values and principles ​[4]​ might stand to benefit towards increasing their effectiveness and impact from a better understanding of Bowen theory.

Agile coaches strive to create a powerful collaboration for the teams they are coaching, with the wider ecosystem including key stakeholders ​[5]​, other teams and more importantly within the team itself. Bowen’s theory which has been credited with excellent results for OD consultants, especially in enabling an environment where teams being coached solve problems themselves ​[3]​, offers a great promise for applications in the space of Agile — team and enterprise coaching.

The process flow defined by Katherine Kott in her research article ​[3]​, provides an excellent operational blueprint for agile coaches to enable meaningful and sustainable coaching outcomes.

Let us dive first into the fundamentals of Bowen theory as it relates to family system and its application to general organizational behavior before we explore its applications for agile coaching.

[If you already know Bowen Theory, you could skip directly to section — Application of Bowen Theory to Agile Coaching practice]

Bowen Theory concepts

Human behavior is described by Bowen in terms of eight inter-related concepts ​[3]​

Differentiation of Self

The ability of an individual to remain autonomous under group pressure is often referred to as differentiation of self ​[3]​. In a family system, this is the ability of individuals to maintain their own individual identity while remaining emotionally connected. For example, in a nuclear family with a highly stressed parent, a differentiated spouse might offer support while still managing their own emotions. Meanwhile, a less differentiated child may feel responsible for soothing family tensions, blurring their own identity. Developing a better understanding of these dynamics helps promote healthier communication and relationships within the family.

In an organizational context, the individuals’ ability to maintain autonomy and clarity of identity while still collaborating effectively within teams helps them navigate challenges without becoming overly influenced by group dynamics. This often results in improved decision-making and team performance.


Triangles denote the involvement of a third person to stabilize a relationship between two other people ​[3]​ For instance, if there’s tension between two parents, a child may become involved, forming a triangle. Recognizing and addressing these triangles helps improve communication and resolve conflicts within the family, fostering healthier relationships overall.

At the workplace, conflicts between two individuals leads to the involvement of a third person, often a boss or another co-worker, disrupting the team dynamics, group cohesion and smooth flow of communication across the team, resulting eventually into lower productivity.

Nuclear Family Emotional Process

The nuclear family emotional process focuses on the emotional dynamics within the immediate family unit and often helps to manage the intensity in relationships (conflict, disengagement etc.) ​[3]​. Unresolved conflicts or communication patterns within the nuclear family can impact individual members’ emotional well-being and behavior. Understanding and addressing these emotional processes can help promote healthier family relationships and improve overall family functioning.

For organizations and especially teams, these often result in team dynamics that create a negative impact on team cohesion and productivity. Addressing these is crucial to enhance collaboration, reduce conflict, and improve overall organizational performance.

Family Projection

Family projection is a concept that describes behavior such as a parent unconsciously projecting their own emotional issues onto their child. For instance, a parent who struggles with anxiety may excessively worry about their child’s safety, projecting their own fears onto the child. These unresolved emotional issues may also manifest in behaviors like scapegoating, blaming etc. ​[3]​ Recognizing and addressing family projection can help parents become more aware of their own emotions and prevent them from negatively impacting their children’s development and well-being.

In organizational behavior, family projection may often manifest as managers or leaders projecting their own insecurities or biases onto their team members. These could have either a beneficial or adversarial impact on their performance evaluations or other decision-making situations. Recognizing and addressing these projections is crucial for fostering a healthy work environment and promoting fair treatment within teams.

Multigenerational Transmission

In family systems, multigenerational transmission refers to the passing down of emotional patterns, behaviors, and beliefs from one generation to the next one e.g., a family with a history of unresolved conflict may pass on communication difficulties to future generations, perpetuating a cycle of dysfunction.

Similarly, in organizations, multigenerational transmission occurs when organizational practices and especially the culture are inherited from previous generations of employees or leadership e.g., a company’s approach to decision-making or conflict resolution may be influenced by longstanding traditions, biases or norms passed down through generations of employees. These problems may often persist even beyond leadership changes as they are deeply rooted ​[3]​.

Understanding these dynamics can help organizations identify areas for improvement and foster a more adaptive and inclusive workplace.

Emotional Cutoff

In family systems, emotional cutoff refers to individuals’ attempts to distance themselves from unresolved emotional issues within their family of origin by limiting contact or communication with other family members e.g., a person may physically or emotionally distance themselves from their parents to escape from longstanding conflicts or emotional turmoil.

Similarly, in organizations, emotional cutoff can manifest when employees disengage from their colleagues or workplace due to unresolved conflicts or negative experiences. Common symptoms include acting out or insubordination, or a preference for working from home without mechanisms for other types of regular contact ​[3]​. This often results in decreased collaboration, communication breakdowns, and reduced productivity. Recognizing signs of emotional cutoff and providing the right avenues for constructive conflict resolution and support helps organizations to foster a more cohesive and positive work environment.

Societal Emotional process

Societal emotional process describes how the emotional system governs the behavior in whole societies ​[6]​. In children with challenging behavioral patterns like chronic lying for example, parents often struggle despite their strict language and actions to discipline the child or cause any change in behavior, because the child often senses the uncertainty in their positions, rebels and so the interventions risks being ineffective ​[6]​.

At a workplace where there is an unspoken expectation or societal norm for employees to suppress their emotions, particularly vulnerability or expressions of stress, employees may feel hesitant to seek support or share their struggles openly, fearing judgment or repercussions.

Sibling Position

Sibling position refers to an individual’s placement in the birth order within a family, influencing their personality traits and dynamics within familial relationships. However, sibling position may not directly translate to organizational behavior as organizational roles and hierarchies are typically based on merit, expertise, and job responsibilities rather than birth order or familial relationships.

Application of Bowen Theory to Agile Coaching practice

Katherine Kott proposed a model ​[3]​ using Bowen theory in organizational development. While originally proposed for OD consultants, it is quite applicable and useful for agile coaches as well as the fundamentals of coaching do remain the same.

Process Flow for OD Consultants Using Bowen Theory, Reproduced from Applying Bowen Theory to Work Systems, Kott K, 2014 [3]

The agile coach should apply concepts from Bowen theory for all steps of the consulting process from when they begin the consulting process to closing the contract.

Enter and Contract

One of the key failure patterns in agile implementations is the buy-in from the leadership. Bowen theory suggests that change at a higher level of a hierarchical system will have much more impact than change at lower levels of the hierarchy ​[3]​. Coaching only at lower levels of the hierarchy without relevant coaching interventions at the higher levels has limited impact e.g., Coaching only the teams and scrum masters but no coaching for leaders. While such coaching might help address some behavioral changes at the team level, the outcomes may not be significant enough or sustainable, because the systemic changes that are needed to elevate and improve the group dynamics and team cohesion may never happen.

Leadership coaching is critical because many leaders do not realize that their behaviors and actions that do not align with the agile ways of thinking often have very detrimental consequences for the transformation. The leader needs to walk the talk, and if they do not think it is important to be actively involved and get coached, the coach must evaluate if they should be entering into this assignment, as the chances of failure are staggeringly high.

Gather and Analyze

Analyzing the environment with a perspective based on Bowen theory allows to gain insights about the underlying emotional processes at work, and not just limit the problem statement to what the client described ​[3]​ or worse still, implementation of an agile process framework. The emotional processes may provide a glimpse into why some of the processes or interventions fail or struggle to sustain. Developing a better understanding of active triangles, and other sources of inter-personnel conflict is crucial. Detecting behavioral patterns that people assume are the organizations standard ways of working but are detrimental and in conflict to the agile mindset would go a long way in improving team cohesion. Strong team dynamics and a healthy relationship with their ecosystem is critical towards implementing processes that are lean, add value and enable the high performance expected out of an agile team.


Agile teams are cross functional with T-shaped team members ​[7]​ that shoulder the responsibility to deliver business value. This needs strong team cohesion and differentiated team members are a fundamental part of that equation. Team members need to act on their own principles, knowledge and not be influenced by group think ​[3]​. Active team member coaching is crucial using powerful questions that helps the team develop clarity on their role in the team. Establishing working agreements ​[8]​ within the team and with the stakeholders is important to facilitate smoother and faster flow of communication within the team. This especially helps stay clear of the triangles that are often the key bottlenecks towards a healthy cohesive team.

There definitely is a distinct boundary that agile coaching will have.

It is not indeed family or individual therapy, but understanding the emotional context of the human that runs the process is critical towards defining and implementing the right interventions, and not just relying on cookie cutter framework-based approaches, however good those frameworks are.

Evaluate and Close

To evaluate the success of a project, consultants who use Bowen theory look for signs that the way the work system functions has changed ​[3]​. In context of agile coaching, it is critical to have measurable parameters around behavioral aspects that indicate a deepening of the agile mindset in the teams and leadership, rather than just a process implementation around practices.

Quoting from the article by Katherine Kott ​[3]​

Consultants who base their practices on Bowen theory strive to develop a coaching relationship with their clients, acting as a facilitator who encourages clients to solve their own problems rather than an expert or even a collaborator. In addition, the consultants build in time for reflection and course correction along the way. A Bowen theory-based approach may require more flexible contracting to enable the consultant to adjust plans as they learn more about the emotional process at work in the organization.


The natural systems research perspective enabled by basing the approach on Bowen Theory helps agile coaches to see individual behavior in the team members and leaders that are being coached as an outcome of the emotional process rather than dysfunctions of the individual. The agile coach stance as a neutral observer with a systems perspective ​[3]​ enables the right coaching interventions that could contribute to the overall transformation success with meaningful sustainable coaching outcomes.


​​[1] ‘What Is The Bowen Theory And How Is It Used In Family Therapy? | BetterHelp’. Accessed: Mar. 30, 2024. [Online]. Available:

​[2] by V Carl Rabstejnek, ‘Family Systems & Murray Bowen Theory Executive Summary’, Jan. 2009. [Online]. Available:

​[3] K. Kott, ‘Applying Bowen Theory to Work Systems’, OD Practitioner, vol. 46, no. 3, 2014, [Online]. Available:

​[4] K. Beck et al., ‘Manifesto for Agile Software Development’, The Agile Alliance. Accessed: Mar. 30, 2023. [Online]. Available:

​[5] H. Garcia and S. Palmer, ‘What is Agile Coaching?’, 2023. [Online]. Available:

​[6] Bowen Center, ‘Societal Emotional Process’. Accessed: Mar. 31, 2024. [Online]. Available:

​[7] Lloyd Jones, ‘Here’s the Thing About T-shaped People’. Accessed: Mar. 31, 2024. [Online]. Available:

​[8], ‘Creating a Team Working Agreement’, Accessed: Mar. 31, 2024. [Online]. Available: