No one grows as a leader without the support from others, which includes superiors, peers, and even subordinates alike. We need people to help make sense of our experiences and of the world. We are often familiar with developmental relationships where we learn from the experience of others, such as through mentoring and on-the-job learning from superiors within your chain of command. Further, many are gaining familiarity with the idea of coaching as a leadership tool, which you can read more about HERE.
Beyond these developmental relationships, which tend to be an “up-down” relationship (a relationship between a superior and subordinate), there is still one source often untapped: your professional peers. Properly leveraged, your peers can be your best source of learning, professional encouragement, and accountability. Peer coaching is an ideal structure for reflection and just one more reflective activity to add to your arsenal of leader learning tools. Through reflection and feedback within your peer coaching relationship, you develop a clearer awareness of personal behaviors and beliefs that affect your performance. Further, work experience alone is insufficient to foster effective learning; we require the assistance of a partner.
Though there is not one singular definition of what peer coaching is or should be, I define it as a group of people (one-on-one or a small group) whom you help, and who help you, by providing encouragement, ideas, different perspectives on challenges and opportunities, and accountability of action through social pressure. The relationship(s) is based on the intent to promote growth, development, and maturity for all of the members. It is a confidential process where professional peers work together to reflect on current practices; expand, refine, and/or build new skills; share ideas; teach and encourage one another; and solve problems together in the workplace.
Engaging with your peers in peer coaching provides three resources to you as you continue to grow as a leader:
- A thinking partner. Even though you both may be in similar developmental stages, it is easier for them to see you more objectively than you see yourself. It is difficult to “see clearly” when we are in the heat of the moment or immersed in the emotion of a current challenge; a peer coach can provide a more balanced perspective. Ultimately, we generally can more easily identify options or give advice to others than ourselves. At its core, peer coaching is collaborative problem-solving.
- Objective support. Your working team (superiors and subordinates), know your old working patterns because they have been experiencing for some time. A peer coach can provide a fresh point-of-view, see beyond history, and focus on the “here-and-now.” They can provide possibilities and strategies, helping you move beyond habitual and singular experience.
- Accountability. Your peer coach helps identify indicators of progress (or lack thereof). They provide ways to support and encourage you during personal and/or organizational change. That support is balanced with providing challenge, though. Your peer coach can call you out when needed and appropriate. They can ask: what’s working? What could (you) improve? They can also provide suggestions for the future.
Engaging with Your Peers in Coaching
Below are ways you can engage with your peers in coaching. This is an informal relationship, not dictated by someone else. You can select peers that you easily relate to, can openly engage with, trust, and are able to be transparent with. With that, there is also immense value selecting peers who are different from you in personality, behavior, experience, and/or beliefs; diversity breeds innovation. Consider that dichotomy as you look to select the right peer(s). In an Army context, company commanders within the same battalion or brigade can be coaching peers, platoon leaders and company XOs together, junior staff officers, squad leaders within the company together, and so on.
- One approach is to share stories about your experiences. This can accomplish two things. First, you can share an experience’s context and allow your peer coach to help make sense of the event. It also conceptualizes a certain topic as a narrative and provides nonthreatening ways to share pedagogical knowledge; that helps avoid giving advice if that is not appropriate for the context.
- Following some learning event, such as a unit “leader professional development (LPD)” lecture, reflect with your peer coach afterword on how you both might use the content within your organization(s).
- Integrate and balance the use of directive and nondirective Directive coaching entails offering advice from your experience and knowledge base; nondirective lends to listening to your peer and asking (open-ended) questions that encourage your peer to reach their own solutions. Based on the situation, context, and attitudes, know what type of coaching is most appropriate for the moment.
- Serve as an accountability partner for personal goals and/or behavior change. Work together to identify leader shortcomings, set goals to improve them, and hold each other accountable for growth. Accountability is not strictly negative; it includes celebrating progress and providing encouragement in setbacks.
Peer Coaching as a Formal Organizational Development Program
You can also use peer coaching as a leader development educational tool for your subordinates to accelerate their professional maturing, commitment to life-long learning, and expand their capacity for critical thinking. Encourage them to commit to peer coaching by providing an opportunity and framework. This is a formal organizational program that you create, and really mandate, for your subordinates.
- Give them an isolated venue away from work distractions; commit them to an offsite working lunch, a DFAC breakfast, or similar social setting to encourage a relaxed attitude.
- Consider the value of you, or another appropriate superior, being present to facilitate conversation, or to not have one there. You know your organization and people, so you are the best judge on this decision. Your subordinates may need some help guiding conversation during the first few sessions; it won’t be a natural startup for many. However, they may be unwilling to open up with a superior present. So, weigh the value of having a facilitator present during the first few peer coaching sessions or not.
- Provide a loose conversational framework, which can include discussion questions or topics. Starting conversation with, “what challenges are you facing at work?” may initially lead to blank stares and uncomfortable shifts in chairs. You need to build the trust and transparency within the group first; you could ask for everyone to share what they learned during a recent training exercise or how physical training is going for their group. In time, people will feel comfortable and will thus be motivated to bring challenges to talk through with their peers.
Guidelines for Your Peer Coaching Relationships
Finally, peer coaching requires a few guidelines to ensure it is healthy and beneficial for all parties involved. Ensure your personal peer coaching relationships, as well as any formal ones you establish for your people, adhere to these guidelines.
- Peer coaches must commit to fiduciary obligations. Though you desire to learn and grow in this relationship, you must be committed to the same for your peer. You must have their best interests in mind and not look to merely gain personally from the relationship.
- The relationship must be based on compassionate, caring inquiry; no judgement. Do not criticize your peer’s ideas. Instead, listen and offer alternatives.
- There must be a balance of roles between coach and “client;” you must give equal time and effort to both roles in helping and receiving help.
- The relationship must be fed routinely. Establish a schedule of meetings that work best for all parties. You can meet once a week, every other week, once a month, etc. Determine what works best for your schedules and needs. Also consider meeting after critical learning events like major training events, unit leader development events, etc.
- Confidentiality is inherent throughout the relationship and every conversation. Respect privacy and preferences; you choose what you want to disclose. What is discussed between peer coaches remains between peer coaches.
- Be aware that we all have particular biases and that you bring your own into the relationship.
- The heart of coaching is questioning. Ask questions, even if you think they are dumb ones; don’t be concerned with ignorance on a topic.
CLICK HERE to access 3×5 Leadership’s “peer coaching resource guide” PDF that I created to offer more resources to help make peer coaching effective for your personal and organizational leader growth. In it, I provide additional organizational method ideas, stages and questions to guide change through peer coaching, response modes to employ, sample peer coaching questions, and more.
This developmental relationship requires vulnerability, professional maturity, and investment of time and effort. Like many professional keys to success, peer coaching is a skill; like all other skills, it can be learned and improved with practice. I challenge you to engage in peer coaching to improve your personal growth as a mature professional and leader. Moreover, I challenge you to establish peer coaching opportunities and networks for your subordinates to empower them, expand their learning and skill sets, inspire them for more growth, and ultimately improve your organization. Consider the high-level of performance an organization can achieve where peers, who often compete against each other for evaluation ratings, can look at each other and say, “I’m not going to let you fail; let’s grow together.”
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