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Jul 24, 2020

In trying to provide the kind of leadership employees need right now, many businesses are struggling. Executives are aware that people need to feel supported and heard through the tumultuousness of COVID-19 and the protests against the killings of Black people by police. They know that workplace cultures must provide empathy and psychological safety. But that’s much easier said than done.

In many cases, past efforts to do this have failed altogether, or had only partial success, despite best intentions.

That’s because building and scaling interpersonal skills to transform the workplace is completely different than building and scaling technical skills. To achieve results, organizations need a new paradigm, one built around a new kind of one-on-one conversations. 

What companies need now is peer coaching, a process through which two colleagues work together to build and refine their own skills and reflect on their experiences and aspirations. Rather than one teaching the other, each peer helps the other learn interpersonal skills by asking the right questions, listening, and offering ideas for improvement. Done right, peer coaching unleashes employee potential at scale.

Changing Culture

Years of experience working with businesses across a wide range of industries has shown me that when peer coaching flourishes, dramatic changes take root. These changes have broad repercussions that go far beyond the organizations themselves by permeating society.

In fact, businesses can be some of our most potent incubators of cultural change. As MIT Sloan Management Review recently noted, a study published by the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies found “that diverse workplaces ‘have a particularly strong potential for integration’ because they ‘restrict individuals’ opportunities to act on tendencies toward homophily’ — the tendency people have to seek out others like themselves.” 

Put simply, work can be our best opportunity to get to know each other and build connections, which is particularly important in times of great divisiveness. But that potential goes to waste when employees can’t discuss their experiences with each other. 

The best way to make those discussions happen is in pairs. To understand why, we need to start from the beginning. We need a new understanding of the best ways for people to learn.

Understanding Andragogy

If that word seems foreign to you, it refers to the science of adult learning, which is different than how children learn along four dimensions: identity, life experience, relevance, and motivation.

Adults relate their own experiences to their learning journeys and are motivated to apply their skills along the way. They also look to bring their individual identities to the process, finding their own unique “spin” on any skill.

But these differences, all too often, are not reflected in workplace learning initiatives. 

Most of the development initiatives offered by businesses still anchor to the way we used to learn as children in school. The latest figures from the Association for Talent Development (ADT) show that more than half of the hours workers spend learning are still in instructor-led classroom environments.

A popular, long-held assumption is that learning is always best when someone with knowledge and experience teaches someone without those things. But when it comes to the development of skills like interpersonal communication, this often isn’t the case. People learn from being placed in a situation in which they have to develop and use these skills with each other.

The Power of One-on-One Dialogue

Of course, peers can talk in groups of any size. But research and experience has shown me that one-on-one conversations that follow a set of rules and expectations are far more powerful.

In this model, each participant spends an equal amount of time talking and listening. Their task is not to provide answers or guidance to each other. It is not mentoring. Instead, the goal is to listen, ask questions, and help each other find their own steps forward.

These conversations can center around a wide range of topics, from current events to problems at work to career trajectories and finding purpose.

Because neither participant has power over the other’s career, there is an implied level of psychological safety built in from the beginning. This is one reason our survey found that 80% of people learn as much or more from their peers as they do from their managers. (Indeed, pairings can involve people from different departments across an organization.)

Because at any given moment there is only one speaker and one listener, each participant hones crucial skills such as listening, demonstrating emotional intelligence (EQ), providing feedback, communication, and focusing.

This process also helps individuals grow greater self-awareness, advocacy, accountability, and psychological well-being. It helps with networking, as well, particularly for introverted people who are most comfortable in one-on-one conversations but maybe quieter in group settings.

So it’s little surprise that, in a survey we conducted, the people who engage in peer coaching were:

  • 65% more likely to say they’re fulfilled at work
  • 67% more likely to be a top performer
  • 73% more likely to feel a sense of belonging
  • 50% more likely to say they expect to stay in their job for more than five years.=

Virtually everyone (96%) reports that each peer coaching session was helpful; one fifth (21%) of the time, it even leads to a “breakthrough.” We have each participant pledge an action to try a new skill in their job; 81% of the time, those actions are completed.

When they engage in peer coaching, participants tell us that they finally feel they can share their experiences, challenges, ideas, and solutions. For some, it’s the first time they’ve opened up in the workplace about issues with which they grapple, including prejudice.

The Importance of Being “Seen”

At the end of June, in honor of Pride, my colleague Travis Mears shared his powerful story of how one conversation changed his career and his life. 

Through years of hiding his sexuality at work, he had learned to act “hard-nosed” and unemotional, he wrote on LinkedIn. Travis explained: 

“This was not me, I didn’t know this person. This was not my true style as a leader. I’m much more of a values-driven leader, a leader who wants to ensure that everything is fair and that everyone has access and opportunity. This thirst for power was a shield, I was scared and felt the need to protect myself.”

This is something many people wrestle with. There’s long been a desire to avoid talking about sensitive subjects or showing vulnerability. Our workplaces have prized conformity over individuality. 

Peer coaching breaks that by giving everyone a platform to explore and discuss their individuality. It’s designed around the understanding that every individual has a story and a unique perspective.

Travis experienced this when he met the woman who later became his manager. “Within one hour of knowing her, I had felt more seen, valued, and heard than I had ever felt in my career. She was curious about me, asked a ton of great questions, and was truly interested in what I had to say. She made me feel safe. After this conversation I knew I needed to join the team… What I didn’t realize in that moment was that I had just had a peer coaching conversation without even knowing it.”

The Value of Trust

A big part of what Travis experienced was an infusion of trust. 

Traditionally, management has not trusted employees to fully speak their minds. Some of this stems from fear. Executives have worried that if people share all their ideas for change, those changes might include calling for new leadership.

There’s also been a mindset that “running a tight ship” means having employees fall in line and execute orders without questioning them. But now, even the hierarchical U.S. military is taking steps toward embracing more individual creativity to become more agile. Part of this is through peer-to-peer learning. 

A report from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, explained that peer learning is “the hub of experiential learning.” Important elements for making it work, the report said, include “informality, familiarity, honesty, openness, heart, passion, dialogue, rapport, empathy, trust, authenticity, disclosure, humor, and diverse opinions.” Peer coaching helps establish all of these elements. 

Humanizing Work

Peer coaching also serves as an important correction to the way that technology can depersonalize work relationships. 

In this era of quick messaging and a hyper focus on productivity, relationships can become far too transactional. Peer coaching forces colleagues to set aside distractions and focus just on each other for an hour at a time. It psychologically frames a colleague as an ally and builds a foundation for long-term trust and support. (And, fortunately, this process can take place virtually through Zoom meetings as millions of people are working from home due to COVID-19.)

For years, business leaders have been hearing all about disruption. 2020 is showing us that it’s time to disrupt how we develop the interpersonal skills that build great leaders. 

It’s time to say goodbye to the models in which desperately needed skills such as empathy and collaboration are “taught” by instructors, and to take on this whole new model. After all, these are the new “power skills.” To succeed in the future, businesses need employees to be excellent at the kinds of things machines can’t yet handle. That begins with understanding each other.