Peer Group Coaching - Employment Today Article

Aly McNicoll

Originally published in Employment Today, December 2018

One-on-one coaching is effective, but to truly leverage learning in the workplace, peer group coaching is the way of the future, says Aly McNicoll. It’s a cost-effective way to cascade coaching throughout an entire organisation

Coaching is widely used in organisations to develop people, performance and potential. It is seen as a development solution of choice for those in senior roles and when it comes to leadership—let’s face

it, there is no substitute for outstanding people. While coaching is ideal for developing day-to-day performance (that’s where managers tend to focus when they coach), its greatest value is in helping people develop their ‘inner game’—the ways of thinking and being that enable them to step up and function at a higher level.

How many of your leaders are given access to coaching on a regular basis?

How many more could benefit from coaching if only you had the budget for it? Peer group coaching could be the solution you are looking for as it addresses two of the key challenges for coaching within organisations—the costs associated with one-to-one coaching plus the availability of skilled coaches who know your business.


Peer coaching groups combine the benefits of one-to-one coaching with the power of peer-to-peer learning. They use what is probably the best learning resource an organisation has—its own people. They are a cost effective way to cascade coaching throughout an entire organisation and can ensure that leaders at all levels get the coaching support that has previously been available only to a few.

We get to evaluate peer group coaching initiatives and some of the benefits people cite include:

Reduced isolation

‘It was comforting to know that other people too experience similar challenges.’

‘I talked about things in my group that I really didn’t have anyone else I could talk to about. When you are in a leadership role, it can be a bit isolating.’

Regular opportunities to reflect

‘My role is so busy that I don’t often get time to think. It was so useful to take this time to focus on what was most important.’

Increased skills in coaching others

‘I used these tools with my team to get them learning from each other.’

‘The skills I learned through this experience definitely improved my coaching with staff.’

Promotes collaboration, team work and team skills

‘I really valued learning about how things work in other areas of the organisation. I still tap in to those relationships when I have a problem or a new process to design.’

Shared learning

‘It was great to talk about things with people who weren’t involved. I could be really honest because they didn’t know the people and their view points were refreshing.’

‘They weren’t allowed to give me advice which meant I had to think really hard and take some responsibility for the outcomes I was getting.’

Self awareness, emotional intelligence and growth

‘I talked about things in my peer group that I would never have talked about anywhere else. We were all in the same boat so nothing to gain or lose.’

‘I felt I was really able to look at myself and my leadership style. No one was judging me so I dropped my guard a bit I think.’

Support in navigating through change, complexity and decision making

‘The views of my group were invaluable when I had really difficult decisions to make. They really helped me step up.’

Increased levels of personal and professional support

‘My role is tough. It was so useful to talk to other people who understood that.’

‘I had dug myself in to a bit of a hole at work and now I feel like a ladder has been lowered down in to it.’


Peer coaching groups are groups of four to six people from similar levels in an organisation who meet on a regular basis to fulfil a coaching contract. They don’t require the presence of an expert coach in the group.

In a peer coaching group, each person takes a turn as a coachee and, collectively, they coach each other using specifically designed tools that tap into the inherent knowledge, experience and wisdom within the group.

Coaching is all about helping people reflect more deeply on their experience in order to gain insight into why things turned out the way they did. The tools involve sharing experiences, offering reflective feedback, providing positive support and sometimes being a devil’s advocate to challenge limited thinking.

The multiple and diverse perspectives that are gained from a group coaching process provide a powerful catalyst for new thinking.

In a peer coaching group, all members are equal and the blame-free, shame-free, consequence-free exchanges that occur ensure that the conversations that will make the most difference take place. Given the right tools and guidance, peer coaching groups create the ideal conditions for self directed, transformational learning at work.


You may already be thinking of the pitfalls of letting people loose on each other in leaderless coaching groups in your organisation. Conversations could deteriorate in to gossip sessions, group gripes or advice-giving festivals.

We all know someone we would hate to be in a peer coaching group with because they tend to dominate the discussion or have overly strong opinions or viewpoints. Fear of judgement or criticism is what causes us to wisely hold back when it comes to revealing challenges in front of others. This is where the toolkit comes in.


Groups are complex places to be so you need simple, structured processes to ensure that coaching conversations are focused, that they do no harm and that they enable you to get through a number of coaching sessions in the time available. The structure creates psychological safety which in turn enables people to take interpersonal risks. The tools prevent ‘task drift’—one of the pitfalls of peer coaching groups cited in the literature—and this is the key to these groups lasting the distance.


Leadership development programmes.

A client—a major financial services firm—had the call for collaboration from their new CEO. They needed to create better connections, have better conversations and find new ways of working across organisational boundaries in order to remain competitive. They were looking for tools to make this happen quickly so they decided to build peer coaching groups in to all of their leadership development programmes.

On the first day with each cohort,

groups of four to six leaders from different regions or business functions were set up. A half-day workshop got them up and running with the toolkit and then they met regularly to help each other put their new leadership learning in to action.

These groups provided an extra layer of support and accountability that enabled people to try things out and learn from both their own and others’ experiences.

While they were getting leadership coaching for themselves, they were also learning tools for collaborative conversations and gaining the confidence to coach others. The ripple effects were huge as people started to promote peer learning processes in their own teams, use their new skills to have better quality coaching conversations and tap the solid connections they had made with people in their groups who worked in other areas of the business.

Many groups continued to meet after the programme had finished and the client decided to offer the workshop to senior managers to create a phase two year for cohorts who had already completed the senior leadership programme.

Professional associations.

Another client—a professional association—offered peer coaching groups as a benefit for members. The specialist nature of the work meant there was not a lot of formal training available once people had graduated.

The association offered a peer coaching group workshop for members where they formed groups that met over the year and the programme was evaluated.

Health & social service professionals.

Most professional bodies in the health and social services sector require members to regularly reflect on practice and engage in continuous professional development.


Peer coaching groups (or their equivalent peer supervision groups) have been widely used by counsellors, social workers, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, caregivers, support workers and nurses. District health boards have been incorporating peer group learning

processes in to their professional supervision strategies and providing workshops for staff. The peer group experience has provided increased levels of personal and professional support for staff who are often working in high demand environments.


Studies of how learning actually takes place in organisations have shown that knowledge creation is a social rather than an individual process. The most effective learning in your organisation may not be happening in training rooms, but in cafes, over lunch, in corridors or through online networks.

Peter Hawkins, Professor of Leadership at Henley Business School, is researching next generation leadership.

He says that, these days, the challenges in organisations are too big for individuals—we need everyone thinking like a leader. And Lencioni, in The 5 Dysfunctions of Teams, observes that in great teams, accountability is peer to peer.

So how much of your training and development budget is devoted to equipping people to learn with and from each other? Are you maximising peer accountability to help people translate learning in to action?

Global trends in coaching indicate a shift towards group and team-based coaching methods. Although one-on- one coaching is very effective, durable changes in leadership behaviours may be more likely to occur in a group setting.

The time is finally right for peer group coaching and peer group coaching is right for the times, so what would it take to harness the power of peer coaching in your organisation?

Aly McNicoll

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