By Stew Friedman
No one grows as a leader without the support of other people. Effective peer-to-peer coaching can offer the encouragement people need to overcome the fear of starting something new. Peer coaches, like professional coaches, can also hold their “clients” accountable for moving in a new direction.
Setting up a peer-to-peer coaching network on the team you manage can accelerate your team’s learning. I’ve been providing peer-to-peer coaching opportunities for decades, in my Wharton courses and in all kinds of organizations, and most recently in a MOOC (massive open online course) I teach on Coursera called Better Leader, Richer Life. In this piece, I’ll explain how to set up a non-directive coaching peer coaching network, in the Socratic tradition (in which the client discovers solutions to problems via dialogue), as opposed to instructional, evaluative, and directive feedback (in which an expert coach solves the client’s problem). Through compassionate, caring inquiry, everyone can develop and improve their abilities through practice and reflection on what works (and what doesn’t).
Of course, it won’t absolve you of responsibility for making tough personnel decisions about pay and promotion and of everything else you must do with your authority. But there is a sense of camaraderie and good feeling that comes when you have positive impact as a coach on another person’s well-being, and peer coaches learn things about themselves both through the act of coaching others, and, of course, by receiving coaching themselves.
To construct a peer coaching network, start small. Set people up in trios or ask employees to find two other people so the three can take turns serving as both coach and client for each other: A coaches B, B coaches C, and C coaches A. Suggest each person start by discussing their goals. The more open we are about goals, the more we increase our commitment to them, and the more likely they’ll be realized.
It’s also useful to talk about how the triad will work together, establishing expectations, time to meet, and understanding each other’s interests, hopes, and fears. Clarify how each member will play the coach and client roles and suggest adjustments as needed. Encourage each person to gain a preliminary understanding of each other’s key relationships at work, at home, and in the community. But the most important ground rule is this: “You choose what you want to disclose.” Respect privacy and preferences for how much information members are willing to disclose.
Provide your team with some basic guidelines followed by most coaches. Ask your team to follow to these guidelines to get the most out of their peer-to-peer coaching relationships:
- Show you care about helping your clients achieve their goals.
- Share your experiences only to help the client feel accepted, not to focus on you.
- Be as aware as possible of your own biases as a coach.
- Stay in touch with the reality your client is facing — listen well.
- Don’t hide your ignorance — ask questions, even ones you might think are dumb.
- Encourage your client to get more help when needed, from all sources.
- Try not to criticize your client’s ideas; usually it’s best to listen and offer alternatives.
- Don’t promise more than you can deliver; this will decrease your credibility.
The heart of non-directive, or developmental, peer-to-peer coaching is asking useful questions. Many people fear change because it forces them into unknown territory, where things are unpredictable and unfamiliar. And yet there are predictable stages people go through when they undertake intentional change. Coaches help others to see and feel the need to create meaningful, sustainable change. Here are the stages and some of the key questions peer coaches can ask in helping clients face the challenges associated with each:
- What’s the problem?
Simply identifying the need for change can be difficult, as many of us ignore information that disconfirms our current perceptions or threatens the status quo. Coaches can help identify blind spots by encouraging self-reflection about things that aren’t obvious to their clients. Asking these basic questions increases awareness:
- As you think about your goals, what’s not working well in your life?
- What are the consequences of this issue for you and the important people in your life?
- What is the source of the need to change — is it in you or is it external?
- Why bother?
Because we naturally tend towards continuing the status quo, if doing something new doesn’t feel urgent, it’s not likely to occur. Coaches can help raise urgency by asking questions such as these:
- Looking ahead, what will happen if you don’t change?
- What will happen if you do change?
- What’s your decision?
The decision to change is a crucial moment because it marks the point when your mind shifts and you begin to see a different future. It is also a fragile point in planned change processes, fraught with temptations to revert to the way things have always been and with distractions away from the focused effort that’s required to do something new and make it stick. Coaches can help clients reach and move beyond this point by asking:
- What have you decided to do differently and why?
- What is the ideal outcome?
- What are your new goals?
4: What steps exactly?
Good coaches ask clients to think out loud about what to do differently, how to overcome obstacles, and what skills or sources of support are needed. You can help your client discover specific ideas for how to better accomplish goals by asking:
- What exactly will you do, and when will you do it?
- How will you measure progress?
- What stands in the way, and how will you overcome these barriers?
- How will you generate needed support?
- Are you really in?
Because commitment wanes without a sense of urgency, coaches should continually test for this. Coaches can ask:
- What if this is harder than you think?
- What are the first steps — and the next steps — you will take?
- How will you maintain your sense of urgency?
- How will you sustain it?
Encouragement at every small step builds momentum. As a coach you should provide frequent reinforcement and celebrate your clients’ successes to bolster confidence and help them avoid backsliding. The key questions here are:
- What impact has your new behavior had on you and others?
- What accomplishments are you proud of achieving?
- Is there a smarter step that might help you build momentum?
- How can I (as your coach) reinforce your commitment to action?
Getting good at both providing and receiving peer coaching requires some investment. Very few people are naturally gifted in this essential skill. But like any other skill, it can be learned – with practice. As the leader of your team, establishing a peer coaching network can empower your colleagues, expand their skill sets, enrich them personally and professionally, and ultimately help your organization. It’s free, it’s fun, and it’s rewarding.