Peer-to-peer coaching: Help employees rediscover their mojo

Small peer-coaching circles work because externally they are cross-industry while, within companies, they are cross-functional and get people out of silos

Working from home has been a liberating experience for many. But not everyone is happy about the shock of the seismic shift in work practices that has taken place over the last 2½ years.

As many employers see it, the benefits of remote and hybrid working are firmly stacked in favour of employees and, with no possibility of things returning to the way they were, some businesses have already begun reconsidering their staffing options. As one employer put it: “Why should I keep paying top dollar to people I never see and who resist coming into the office when the same work can be done for less elsewhere?”

The possibility that jobs might be relocated during this period of post-Covid adjustment is a sobering thought as is the fact that managers say they are struggling with high levels of stress and burnout due to dwindling employee engagement.

Data from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s HR practices survey for 2022, published in May, shows that employee engagement is a top priority for both organisations and HR departments, with 45 per cent of the survey’s respondents saying their organisation’s culture had been negatively affected by the pandemic – an increase from 37 per cent in 2021.

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Trying to embed or reinforce an organisation’s culture at a distance is easier said than done. And many of those in leadership positions believe the dilution of culture and lacklustre levels of engagement could at least be partially addressed by simply having people together, even some of the time. But resistance to in-office days remains strong, resulting in a stand-off between what’s good for employees and what’s good for the business.

Maslow’s pyramid

Barry Walsh, founder of peer-to-peer coaching consultancy the Power of Seven believes the way to negotiate the current impasse is by changing the value proposition for employees. In a nutshell, they need enticement to come back to the office with something closer to the top of Maslow’s pyramid, not a free lunch.

“Employees, especially younger ones, say they want meaning in their working lives in order to be engaged but where are they getting it from now?” Walsh asks. “One way is through the relationships they build with co-workers, but this is much more difficult when people are working remotely.” When workers are together, Walsh adds, they are informally exchanging information all the time. This means they are likely to know if someone has a problem at work or at home and to offer the support that makes people feel included. And inclusion matters.

In an effort to put these affirming exchanges at work on a more structured footing, Walsh has developed a system of peer-coaching circles.

At its simplest, the circles create a forum for employees at the same level within an organisation to get to know each other personally while also helping them achieve greater satisfaction in their professional roles. However, these small groups (of typically seven people) go further by also creating a safe environment where members can be coached by their peers and helped to solve their most challenging problems.

Other knock-on benefits include getting insights into how other functions within the business work and ultimately a better understanding of how everything is interconnected. Walsh has introduced the circles at medical technology company Becton Dickinson and at medical devices manufacturer Integer. The process starts with senior management and is then cascaded throughout the business.

Power of Seven

Pauline Oakes, senior director of operations at New Ross-based Integer, which employs close to 1,000 people, introduced peer-coaching circles at the company two years ago. “The experience has been hugely rewarding and effective for the team members involved and for the business as a whole,” she says.

“Six members of our current coaching circle recently volunteered to become facilitators themselves. This will enable us to expand the peer-coaching model to all levels of the business. We’re keen for all of our staff to benefit from the process in the way the senior leadership team has.”

Walsh initially set up the Power of Seven (seven because we remember best in sevens and our brains prefer to store data this way) to test his hypothesis that people are more likely to listen and learn from their peers than from anyone else. “I had worked on personal and professional development with a lot of senior people and I knew that shared experience between peers is far more powerful than any one person trying to teach someone about leadership or management,” he says.

The Power of Seven started 18 years ago with a handpicked group of seven high-achieving managers drawn from non-competing sectors and companies. Walsh’s hunch was that as peers they would be willing to share business insights, problem solve, trouble shoot and ultimately learn a lot from each other.

Turns out he was right. The group met, found the process hugely beneficial and still meets regularly almost two decades later.

“These peer groups are really valuable because externally they are cross-industry while, within companies, they are cross-functional and get people out of their silos,” Walsh says. “When we put a group together, there is usually a bit of holding back initially but pretty quickly they start talking and the impact can be transformational in terms of relationships, engagement and the positive impact on the business. When people get to know each other as individuals they are far more willing to go the extra mile.”