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Peer Coaching – Will They? Can They? Should They?
Peer Coaching – Will They? Can They? Should They?

Many organizations are exploring the value of peer coaching—the practice of having professional colleagues share ideas and work with one another to improve performance, solve problems, and build competencies.  I’m of two minds on this trend.  The skeptical Nick feels this might be happening because managers, who should be the ones to coach their team members or direct reports, are looking for a way out because they’re not comfortable with coaching.  I also wonder if another motivation is to save money: “We don’t want to lay out the cash to engage external coaches, so let’s get internal coaches.”  That’s my (very small) cynical side.

 Trusting* Nick begs to differ. Who else knows this person better than the colleagues who work by his or her side?  Those peers have a good understanding of the organization and its challenges, so why shouldn’t they be able to offer valuable coaching?  Plus, having groups of people work side-by-side to support each other’s career development is a good way to build a support network and stronger relationships within an organization.

 So where do I land on this topic? I believe peer coaching is a valid strain of coaching, and there’s plenty of writing about its value.  Several factors need to be in place, however, for it to work.

 CULTURE (Will they)? -- The success of peer coaching depends on the culture of the organization.  Is the organization truly collaborative? Do peers look out for each other, share openly, and value the interests of the organization and their colleagues?  If so, then the environment for peer coaching will be positive. Trouble is, it takes a lot of work and deliberate focus to create organizations like that. Many organizations still have performance frameworks that drive self-interest, rate colleagues against one another, and feed into talent and promotion processes that see one person achieve and succeed at the expense of others. It’s understandable that peers may see themselves as competitive with one another and put self-preservation before the professional welfare of others and the organization as a whole. 

 This is a particular problem in career coaching—that is, helping others identify and pursue their career goals. Many managers avoid career discussions because they feel threatened by the aspirations of their direct reports. In fact, we recently found that only 16% of employees indicate that they have ongoing conversations with their managers about their career. 

 CAPABILITY (Can they)? – Lack of skills is a big issue. Coaching requires specific expertise around how to structure the conversation, and how to use skills for questioning and listening and probing and exploring—it’s not just providing feedback and telling others what to do. In my experience, most people are unprepared for coaching conversations because they’ve never been trained in those capabilities. A particular challenge with career coaching is to separate your story from the other person’s career context.  The default position for most non-coaches is to think about one’s own career and give people advice based on that experience.  While that insight may be valuable, it may not work for a colleague with a different personality, skills, and career interests. And once that insight is exhausted, there’s no coaching advice left in the cabinet to pull out.
FRAMEWORK—Career coaching adds another layer to the coaching structure and process.  Right Management’s Talk the Talk research describes the following set of questions that would be covered as part of a series of productive Career Conversations: 
  •  Who am I? How do I fit? A discovery session looking at what an employee wants to achieve and where they currently fit in an organization.
  • What is expected of me? Using SMART goals to plan a development path, ensuring goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.
  • What and how should I develop? Looking at specific areas for individual development.
  • How am I doing? An ongoing conversation about professional development.
  • How will my contribution be recognized? The development of a motivation and reward program that is specific to that employee.
  • What’s next? Looking at what is next in the career journey and giving something specific to aim for.
 While suitably skilled and insightful peers can provide at least partial answers to some of these questions, it is managers who should provide the answers.  It’s their job.
 Successful peer coaching does not happen spontaneously. If the organization does  not have a coaching culture and other people aren’t interested and skilled in developing talent, then just starting a peer coaching program won’t be the magic bullet. It takes all three elements:
  • A supportive culture that considers the success of the individual as key to the success of the organization
  • People with coaching skills and expertise, especially in the area of career development
  • A rigorous framework that drives accountability and sustainability 
If you take time to establish the right environment for peer coaching – culture, skills, and framework – you’ll have the best chance of success. 

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