Helping relationships between peers can lead to significant breakthroughs.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts a small educational nonprofit called Breakthrough Greater Boston is changing the academic trajectories for underserved middle school students. The organization, which offers year-round, tuition-free instruction outside of regular school hours recruits college and high school students to teach in the program and act as coaches for the younger students. Breakthrough calls this its “students teaching students” model, and the resulting success of its programs have been phenomenal: the high school graduation rate for its students is 98 percent. Better still, college-bound students at Breakthrough—which has strong partnerships with local universities likes Tufts and MIT—have a college graduation rate of over 95 percent.
What the success of Breakthrough teaches us is how valuable peer coaching can be. We define peer coaching as a focused relationship between individuals of equal status who support each other’s personal and professional development goals, like the student teachers and their pupils at Breakthrough or that colleague you collaborate with closely at your office. Whether in not-for-profit entities such as Breakthrough, in learning circles to support CEO development, or in health care, business, or government sectors, people are forming collaborative relationships to support their growth both in and outside of the workplace. These helping relationships involve two or more individuals who supportively learn from, actively listen to, and judiciously question each other, which leads to breakthroughs that otherwise may lie dormant and prevent growth and effectiveness. In today’s turbulent, globalized, and complex world, collaborative relationships with peers are an important resource for tackling the challenges we face.
In our book, Peer Coaching at Work: Principles and Practices we present a three-step model for facilitating peer coaching relationships in one-on-one settings and in groups:
An effective peer coaching process requires a strong foundation. It should be rooted in shared goals, mutual commitments, and a sense of trust. The activities we outline in Step 1 focus on building a safe environment in which peers will be able to reflect on their experiences, increase their self-awareness, and practice skills that enable continuous learning in the relationship. For example, when a group of executives convene for a leadership retreat, business managers are likely to engage in intentional activities that address group norms, personal aspirations, areas for development, and hopes for future processes. In another example, a group of women who are building their skills and competencies as physician leaders routinely meet to share challenges and strategies for addressing them. Creating a shared experience like this opens up possibilities for colleagues to support each other and contribute more fully to their organization. The peer coaching activities that we detail in our book—such as how to go about selecting a peer with whom to work and how to hammer out productive working agreements with that person—build a holding environment that ensures safety, affirms each individual, and integrates challenge into the learning process.
Essential to the success of peer coaching relationships is the development of self-awareness through self-disclosure and feedback, thus Step 2 focuses on building success by applying and enhancing relational skills that boost personal and professional learning. These skills include critical reflection and social and emotional competencies that foster inquiry, experimentation, and practice. In the case of the executive retreat, colleagues participated in a regularly scheduled process of critical self-reflection along with guided opportunities for stretching beyond their comfort zone. The mutual support of the peer group supports this process. In the example of the women physicians, they are supported by activities designed to help them notice how their roles as leaders in the workplace help them be better mentors, with colleagues and students. Together they create strategies for supporting their students, interns and colleagues while strengthening the quality of patient care.
Making peer coaching
Having realized the benefits of cultivating these learning relationships through Steps 1 and 2, Step 3 is oriented toward sustaining and extending those relational skills gleaned through peer coaching to other relationships. Peer coaching becomes a habit when it becomes part of everyday practice. Both within the workplace and in the broader community—volunteer organizations, schools, places of worship, and so on—individuals now see opportunities to build collaborative learning partnerships with peers and have the desire and capacities to do so.
These steps ensure that individuals develop the insight and skills to enact and build a trusting and open relationship in which participants feel valued, supported, and safe as they explore difficult issues at work and in life. What makes this book unique is that we both outline the specific strategies and tactics in each step that help individuals develop self-awareness and relational skills to build and sustain peer relationships and we introduce a reflective perspective that supports an ongoing process for learning, growing, and creating better relationships. We provide examples of short-term peer coaching in the context of a one-day workshop, as well as long-term peer coaching that endures over many, many years, and everything in between.
In today’s turbulent, globalized, and complex world, collaborative relationships with peers.
After presenting the fundamentals of our three-step process for peer coaching, we apply peer coaching to increasingly common situations. For example, learning groups among peers are proliferating in organizational settings as mentoring circles, employee resource groups, and leadership learning groups. These groups, embedded in specific organizational cultures need guidelines to be successful. In addition, we contrast task and personal learning to illustrate how such peer relationships may unfold when one or more peers aspire to deep personal learning, not only technical learning. We outline the types of learning and change that can occur and offer guidelines for how the reader can create conditions for deep learning in almost any context. This is supported by the conviction that the quality of what we create together in relationships is continually unfolding—and that we can develop the capacity to be mindful of how we choose our next response to best enhance and deepen the quality of what we build together.
Peer Coaching at Work emphasizes that while peer coaching has great potential as an alternative helping relationship, it is not a panacea and things can go wrong if individuals lack the self-awareness and social skills necessary to build a shared vision for the relationship as well as routines that support ongoing learning and critical reflection. Towards the end of the book we offer several “cautionary tales” where relationships may diminish in value if individuals do not take the time to raise and honestly address obstacles to effective communication. Armed with these skills, we believe that both individuals and organizations can create conditions where peer coaching will flourish.
Throughout the book we present many examples, and we illustrate a number of communication practices that can help build and sustain peer coaching relationships. If you are an organizational leader or an internal human resources practitioner we encourage you to consider how to support the growth of peer coaching through reward systems, job design, cultural norms, and educational programming. Whether you are in industry, financial services, healthcare, education or government, there are opportunities to leverage this developmental tool toward achieving personal, professional, and organizational goals. Go ahead and try it!