Value of Peer Coaching
Perhaps you have heard of the practice of coaching, where individuals receive coaching from external professional coaches, internal coaches, or managers; and the benefits of coaching for improving self-awareness, leadership, and organizational performance. What is less widely understood or implemented, but may have a broader organizational impact, is the practice of peer coaching. In my last blog I wrote about the democratization of coaching—making coaching skills training and one-on-one coaching available to employees regardless of supervisory status. Peer coaching is a great example of doing just that.
So what is Peer Coaching?
Peer coaching occurs when a group of peers, who may or may not be from the same team, first learn or review coaching skills together so they are all operating with the same understanding of the coaching toolkit, then agree to partner with one another to practice those skills while addressing real concerns they each have. In peer coaching, participants are intended to support one another in ongoing one-on-one coaching conversations after they’ve been trained in using coaching skills.
They might call their counterpart a “learning” or “accountability” partner. Regardless, they typically commit to working with someone in a series of coaching conversations. The intention is to combine the learning and practice of coaching skills with a “safe” peer partner with whom to build rapport and gain new perspective. Informally, meetings can occur at whatever frequency feels appropriate to the pair, whether that means impromptu calls, or meetings every other Friday like clockwork. They bring real topics they want to be coached on, and the partner-coach helps their peer design their own intrinsically motivating solutions.
Like every other coaching relationship, trust and confidentiality are key. Partners are meant to listen, inquire, reflect back what they are noticing, make requests, and give feedback in service of their partner’s growth. This only works if each person in the partnership is truly interested in creating change of some sort; gaining new perspective, exploring ways of thinking that are otherwise keeping them stuck, seeking a new approach to a difficult relationship, etc. Without a desire to get introspective and try something new, coaching with a peer, or anyone else, is not likely to be a good fit.
Why invest in peer coaching?
When done well and supported by senior leadership, peer coaching can help to create new norms for engaging with others in the workplace. Peers, whether in teams or not, can create a habit of making one another part of their own solution, rather than ruminating in venting conversations, or commiserating together without owning any part of the needed change.
Often, peer coaching is seen as a way to provide coaching skills to employees so that they can better support one another in addition to using those skills with their direct reports. In this way, coaching spreads through an organization rather than sticking within a small group. This might stem from a desire by leadership to give the group more tools. It might occur as a result of tightening budgets that don’t allow for the expense of external coaches. Maybe an organization doesn’t have internal coaches but wants to find a way to support employees through the use of coaching.
Whatever the reason, the value of peer coaching often is best achieved when coaching behaviors are endorsed and modeled by senior leadership. Employees readily understand whether a coaching approach is truly valued, and with many organizations only paying lip-service to the importance of coaching, employees can easily become disenchanted by the notion of creating a “culture of coaching” or stymied when they don’t see leadership walking the walk. In turn, they may find it fruitless to engage in supportive, coaching behaviors themselves, or worse, find themselves in potentially harmful or destructive relationships with peers who also aren’t bought-in to the notion of peer coaching.
Waiting for senior leadership to get on board isn’t always what’s best for the team, though. When employees don’t feel supported from above, they can look to each other. This is part of being a resilient team. Most people can have a supportive and productive conversation with a peer when they implement the right conversational coaching skills, coupled with the right intentions for the relationship. Take the lead and model this for others. If you’re in the position to provide a peer coaching program to your team, your efforts won’t be wasted.