Do you incorporate peer coaching and peer learning into your company? Should you?
This article will explain what Peer Coaching Groups are and how they can positively impact organizations and employees alike.
I was very fortunate to participate as a panelist at the Academy of Management’s (AOM) Annual Conference in Boston in August on Peer Coaching Groups (PCG). AOM brings together perspectives from both academics and practitioners to give a rich view of emerging business and leadership practices. Our panel included researchers in the PCG space from Case Western Reserve University, Wharton Business School and the University of Massachusetts, among others. Not only was it a great panel but the attendees were mostly researchers in the field, resulting in great questions and discussion.
PCGs are an organized group of people of relatively equal status that meet regularly to provide mutual support with personal and professional development. The benefits of PCGs are the growth of the participants, an understanding and appreciation of different perspectives, greater accountability, the well-being of participants and a sense of mutual support. These are important potential outcomes that any business owner or leader would want from their teams. With a greater emphasis that organizations are placing on the whole employee, not just the worker, PCGs have great potential for any organization.
In the panel, we discussed several environments in which PCGs were used successfully. Several of the researchers have seen the benefits of student groups helping each other in their studies. One participant, from a large consulting firm, shared how peer participants worked well for them. It was important to have attendees of relatively equal status, however, with enough organizational distance between reporting and work where they are more inclined to be supportive. Student groups and consulting companies can both be very competitive environments. Yet with the right structure and training, PCGs were positive in both environments. I also discussed how TAB’s Peer Advisory Groups of business owners and CEOs have worked so well for over 30 years (more on this below).
What are the attributes that allow for a successful PCG? Some of these attributes are based on research and others are based on us facilitating these groups for decades. Some of the key attributes include:
- They need to be non-competitive. If two participants are competing in some way, then they will naturally hold back. They will not speak about the real issues they are facing for fear the competitor will use it against them.
- Participants need to show up consistently. An organization leader may make their PCGs required. It’s much better when the attendees genuinely want to attend because they like participating and receive value. Leaders need to check-in periodically, perhaps using a survey, to confirm the value is there, and if not, make adjustments.
- Psychology Safety must be present. Amy Edmonson from Harvard Business School identified psychological safety as a key attribute of effective group dynamics. If someone shares a thought, experience or emotion in the group and they feel judged, they will not bring their full selves to the group in the future. Safety needs to be part of the ground rules.
- Participants should want to both receive help and help each other.
- The group needs a well-defined structure. At TAB, and many other organizations, the groups are led by a professional facilitator that ensures that participants are prepared, everyone gets an equal time slice, topics are understood before advice is given and communication is always respectful.
- Participants have no agendas other than helping each other.
To give an example of why peer groups are so effective, one researcher shared a powerful example. She studied groups led by a facilitator. While facilitators are meant to refrain from advice, sometimes they see a need to give advice. This researcher noticed that the participants often did not accept that advice. However, when a peer team member gave substantially similar advice later in the meeting, the recipient tended to accept it more positively. The advice from peers can be very strong.
At TAB, we’ve been running PCGs – more advisory groups than coaching groups – of business owners and CEOs for over 30 years. We’ve seen the transformational impact that they can have on our members. Unlike employee groups, TAB Boards are completely optional. Members can leave at any time. Yet our members stay for about 5 years on average. In our model, each member brings an important issue or opportunity they are facing in their business – or sometimes in their life – each month. We create an environment of complete safety and confidentiality so that members are not judged in any way and can be assured their topic will stay in the room.
You’ve probably heard that “it’s lonely at the top.” For business owners, this is very true. Their TAB Board – or other peer group of CEOs and Owners – serves as the one forum where they can be completely open about the real issues they are facing and aren’t sure how to deal with.
Are there downsides about PCGs? I’ve only seen them as positive but in the wrong organization, I could see a PCG having unintended consequences. I believe an organization needs to have a culture of abundance and not scarcity for PCGs to work. If the organization’s culture is ‘if I help you, then you will get ahead and this will diminish me’, then the peers will hold back. They will go through the motions and not really try to help each other. In this culture, PCGs will ‘run out of gas.’ In an abundance culture, where peers believe that ‘you and I can both help each other and we’ll both be more successful as a result’, then PCGs are a good fit.
The other downside I could see is an organization where PCGs turn into ‘gossip groups’ or worse, ‘bitch session.’ My recommendation to prevent this is to consider carefully the makeup of each PCG. While we want PCGs to be peer-driven, organization leaders can impose some structure, including how the groups are formed. You should ensure that each PCG has several participants that are more positive, to at least neutralize any participants who may tend to take the discussion in a more negative direction.
Peer learning and peer support are becoming more and more important for organization success. It’s our experience that organizations of all types should investigate how to incorporate them into the fabric of their organizations. To maximize likelihood of success, PCGs should be setup thoughtfully and monitored carefully to ensure they are having the positive impact intended on both the organization and individual employees.