Unleash the power of peer coaching

Peer coaching is a powerful, yet underused, learning tool. But with many learning functions currently stretched thin, there’s opportunity to take better advantage of it.

No matter what else is changing in the world of business, this much stays the same year after year: Businesses say that learning and development efforts to close skill gaps are a top concern.

“HR leaders see building critical skills as vital to driving many of their organization’s priorities — from growing the business and executing business transformation to improving operational excellence,” Gartner reports. In a recent Gartner survey, 68 percent of HR leaders cited this objective, far more than any other.

But with many organizations stretched thin, finding the time and resources for L&D is a tough task. It doesn’t have to be. One of the most powerful tools to help staff gain new skills is already inside our organizations and vastly underutilized: the power of peers.

A survey conducted by my company, Imperative, asked people whether they learn more from peers or managers. More than half (53 percent) said they learn more from peers. Only 20 percent said they learn more from their managers, and the remaining 27 percent said they learn from both equally. This means 80 percent of people said they learn as much or more from their peers.

To find out why this is, we interviewed people who use our peer coaching platform. In peer coaching — unlike mentoring — people pair off for guided hour-long conversations in which they’re on equal footing. They can discuss a wide range of topics connected to developing critical skills.

At the end of each conversation, they commit to taking actions to further their development, increase their productivity and improve their well-being. They then hold each other accountable, following up in the next conversation to ensure their peer took action.

The result is clear behavior change. Eighty percent of the time, people pull through on taking those actions. Sometimes, that figure is even higher. We recently published a case study on our work with Code for America. There, 95 percent of pledged actions were fulfilled.

Safety, reflection and motivation

The peer coaching environment creates a “safe space,” one user told us. Because people are “on the same level,” no one is trying to prove anything.

When learning from a manager, another person said, “You can feel like you can’t share your weaknesses because they will hold onto them. It’s helpful to have a peer that is separate from evaluating you and determining your pay. The peer is there purely to help make you better, and there is no other part of them trying to navigate it any other way.”

This psychological safety makes people feel more free to discuss their challenges, setbacks and hopes without worrying that they’ll be judged.

Participants also said the peer coaching process helps them take part in more reflection, which is essential in the learning process. Research shows that when people pause to consider their learning efforts, how far they’ve come, what they need to do next and how it fits into their lives, they succeed more quickly in mastering skills. One person told us that peer coaching forces participants to stop and be thoughtful about how you’re developing. Another said it “helps paint a bigger picture to understand who I am as a person.”

Participants also told us that this time spent having conversations with peers was uniquely motivating. This fits with a study from Michigan State University, which found that “peers, more than teachers, inspire us to learn.”

Building soft skills and relationships

The nature of peer coaching also serves as a perfect opportunity for employees to advance their soft skills, which are some of the most crucial skills businesses need. Creativity, collaboration, persuasion and emotional intelligence top the list, LinkedIn has found.

Through this process, participants need to listen, consider, offer constructive feedback, communicate their own ideas and perspectives, and display empathy. They also build connections and relationships, which are key in retaining employees.

Unfortunately, many organizations still lack a formal system for peer learning. While fully up-to-date figures are not available, McKinsey reported a few years ago that “less than half of the organizations avail themselves of peer and self-directed learning.”

Although that’s bad news, the good news is that this provides a great deal of potential. In looking to tackle their challenges, businesses don’t need to pour extreme efforts and resources into instructor-led courses and online tutorials. By giving employees the time and ability to connect with each other for guided peer coaching, they can empower workers to engage in their own development efforts, closing skill gaps.

It’s time to unleash that potential.