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Justin Locke

The power of peer-to-peer coaching

Why it’s one of the best ways to develop staff at every level.

May 7, 2012
by Justin Locke

Peer-to-peer (PTP) coaching is cheaper than outside trainers, is done by people who know the business firsthand, enhances teamwork, and maintains the company culture with new hires. And yet, PTP coaching is often not used or is even prohibited because:

  1. People are afraid to ask for it, for fear of looking incompetent.
  2. People are afraid to offer it, for fear of being thought condescending and obnoxious.
  3. Some people think they know everything, so they reject it.
  4. Some people aggressively coach others without being asked, and everyone hates them.

Even when it isn’t forbidden, critiquing someone else’s work can be dangerous. You don’t want to say something that alienates a co-worker. Since it is not known how others will take well-intended suggestions, most people are cautious and play it safe. Unless something is done proactively, the default for staff is often to say nothing, and tolerate a co-worker’s shortcomings.

PTP coaching has many benefits, but it takes effort and planning. It must have total “coachee” buy-in, otherwise it becomes one more form of top-down authority.

Assign people to coach and encourage this broad policy, even at the risk of having egos bruised. It’s your job as manager to define the emotional safety structure.

The best way to achieve PTP coaching is to sell the idea by explaining the personal benefits to be gained and then giving “mentees” the ability to select their own peer group coach. It works best if it’s optional for the coach too. There should be mutual consent and respect for peer-to-peer coaching to work.

Here is one example of how I have used PTP coaching:

I am an active social dancer, and in the swing dance world, there is an unwritten rule of “no coaching on the dance floor.” This rule is there because dancing is a very personal thing, everyone is trying his or her best, and it is very upsetting to have someone blindside you with unsolicited criticism. The people running the dances don’t like to have anyone upset.

Some years ago, I decided to break the rule, but in reverse; I starting to solicit feedback from a select group of dance partners. I gave them permission to tell me if I ever did anything wrong. Once they had that permission, it opened the floodgates to a deluge of information.

The first few months were pretty rough. I was truly shocked at all the things I had been doing wrong for years. I had been doing things in a way that I thought was correct, as I had learned it in a class. But, as usual, “no one had ever said anything.” My incompetence had been simply (and silently) tolerated.

Bear in mind that I was not asking them to give me free lessons, but wanted to know their opinion of what could use improvement. The solutions were up to me to discover, either through trial and error or through private lessons with a professional.

This is not a new idea. All top performers I know have in place some kind of peer review strategy — whether a practice partner or a professional association — through which they can get feedback. I recently spoke at a meeting of CEOs, where a portion of the meeting was carefully structured enabling each CEO to sit at every table and ask other CEOs’ opinions about their current challenges. It was both a support group and a brainstorming exercise. It was PTP coaching. There wasn’t anything top-down about it. The conversations were light and informal, and CEOs were sharing information with peers saying, “Here’s another angle on what you’re doing," or “I had a similar problem once, here is what I did,” and so on. That objective point of view from a peer can be priceless.

Being critiqued and judged can be very upsetting. Individuals can feel helpless and vulnerable. Passion for improvement is a wonderful thing, but it needs structure, or it can blow up in your face. All kinds of “baboon troop” pecking-order issues have to be respected; otherwise things can become worse. You must create a sense of safety, trust, and connection between the coach and the mentee.
Peer-to-peer coaching is a very personal thing, and it has to complement the day-to-day work relationship. When handled well, it is possibly the best training you will ever get or can provide.

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Justin Locke is an author and speaker. He spent 18 seasons playing bass with the Boston Pops, and he is the author of Principles of Applied Stupidity. He was recently featured on authors@google. You can find out more about his presentations on overcoming cultural inertia by visiting his website.

© Justin Locke