Peer Coaching at Work
Principles and Practices
Polly Parker, Douglas T. Hall, Kathy E. Kram, Ilene C. Wasserman

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Preface and Acknowledgments

We came to the creation of this book with a shared belief in the untapped potential that can be unleashed when people help each other learn. That belief fueled our interest in the deeper exploration of a process that can easily be taken for granted: peer coaching.

As in all relationships, our similar interests and values provided the glue for our collaboration on peer coaching. At the same time, our differing perspectives enabled us to develop a new and complex understanding of this helping relationship. In our research, we discovered that to be most effective, learners engaging in peer coaching go through three important steps to truly solidify and integrate peer coaching into their learning practice. The purpose of this book is to present our 3-step model of peer coaching and to offer practical strategies and tactics that are relevant to individuals at every stage of life, from school age to working adults in early, middle, and late stages of their careers, and to organizations of all types.

To illuminate the underlying theoretical perspectives, values, and personal biases that have shaped our work, we begin by briefly reviewing how the four of us became a collaborative team. In 1998 Tim Hall and Polly Parker met at a conference on careers. During this conference, they had the opportunity to work together as peer coaches to share and draw learnings from their personal career stories. The activity, led by Judi Marshall, was quick, involving five minutes to tell your story and two minutes to provide feedback to your partner (for a total of fifteen minutes). Polly and Tim were amazed by how much they learned from each other in such a short time, and both were quite excited about their common interests. In retrospect, we are struck by the way our initial brief peer coaching experience led to an ongoing professional and social relationship.

Following this initial meeting, Polly and Tim stayed in touch and began to introduce learning dyads in their MBA classrooms. It is here that the potential of peer coaching became quite evident. With Tim’s understanding of career theory and his own work on identity, career learning, and, most recently, the protean career, it became quite clear that mutual helping in dyadic relationships was an underutilized tool for task and personal learning. Meanwhile, down under (Australia), Polly brought her deep knowledge of coaching in international gymnastics, executive coaching, and telephone counseling, as well as her current work on career communities and career values, to her work with MBA students. The two stayed in touch, reporting on their classroom experiments, often at annual meetings of the Academy of Management.

By 2005 Tim and Polly began collecting data in their MBA classrooms as they tried different ways to foster effective peer coaching. Before long, Tim saw the connection between their emerging work and Kathy Kram’s work on mentoring and relational learning. Tim and Kathy had already shared over twenty years of colleagueship and collaboration, and bringing the relational lens to this classroom work on peer coaching seemed like an excellent opportunity to deepen understanding of peer coaching and to explore Kathy’s interest in alternatives to hierarchical mentoring. During the next six years, this team of three collected data in their classrooms on the impact of peer coaching on students’ learning and their inclination to seek out opportunities for further learning in relationships with peers back at work.

The results of our surveys surprised us. We had anticipated the positive outcomes of peer coaching, but we were much less aware of the potential downsides that some of our students experienced when they encountered unmet expectations, poor communication, or a lack of mutual commitment to learning through the relationship. We recognized at this point that peer coaching is more than “two people who help each other” (sometimes called “pair and share”). There were complexities in building successful learning partnerships that had to be managed proactively. We learned that it wasn’t just a matter of doing peer coaching in class, but rather a matter of doing peer coaching correctly.

Thus, we began to document the necessary conditions for effective peer coaching to emerge in our classrooms. This led to an articulation of our 3-step model of peer coaching, in which expectations and ground rules are established in the first step and participants develop the relational skills and self-awareness to communicate effectively during the second step. In the third step of our model, participants are asked to practice their newfound understanding and skills related to peer coaching to other relationships back at work and elsewhere in their lives. We published three articles on the nature of peer coaching,1 the risks of peer coaching,2 and the untapped potential of peer coaching,3 and presented two conference papers that preceded the decision to consolidate our learning in this book.

Shortly after Kathy joined Tim and Polly on their first peer coaching project, she met with Ilene Wasserman at the Academy of Management annual meeting. They had met a number of years earlier regarding mutual interests in the ways mentoring relationships are shaped by diversity. Early in their dialogue, they discovered many shared interests (including the fact that their children all attended the same university). Most relevant was that Ilene was ensconced in the world of practice as an OD practitioner and was pursuing scholarly work after completing her doctoral degree. Kathy, fully engaged in the academy as a tenured full professor, had kept her consulting work to a minimum for many years in order to be successful on the academic track. In getting to know Ilene, the two found that they could enrich their respective work on relational learning, diversity, and leadership development through their collaboration in research, writing, and consulting. Their partnership gave voice to Kathy’s practitioner interests in bringing relational learning to work settings and gave Ilene the opportunity to collaborate with Kathy as she was pursuing her scholarly interests. After publishing two studies on the challenges of the scholar-practitioner role and working together on a consulting project, they were enthusiastic about continuing to collaborate on other projects.

Thus, the stage was set for the four of us to connect and to consolidate all that we have learned to date about peer coaching. We had our first face-to-face meeting in 2012 at the Academy of Management, where we began to explore our shared interests. Ilene brought new ideas to our group from the communications perspective in addition to her deep work on diversity and inclusion. Our first collaboration resulted in an article that highlighted how models grounded in relational theory add clarity to the process of peer coaching as a series of relational encounters.4 As we began to envision this book project, we realized the importance of examining peer coaching in a group context because many of the examples of peer coaching that we observed were occurring in small groups as part of leadership development programs or standalone employee resource groups in corporations, health care, and educational contexts.

Since we began working on this book, we have affirmed our shared theoretical grounding in mentoring, developmental theory, relational theory, human development, and positive organizational scholarship. We draw on scholarly work in these arenas to deepen our understanding of what we have experienced, observed, and created in our work with individuals and organizations. Thus, you will see references to fellow scholars including Ed Schein, Bob Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Jennifer Garvey Berger, Ken Gergen, Dan Levinson, Barnett Pearce, Jane Dutton, Belle Ragins, Sheila McNamee, Monica Higgins, Michael Arthur, and Urie Bronfenbrenner. This list is representative, rather than exhaustive, of those who have influenced our thinking and our work.

We attribute our collective learning about peer coaching to the quality of peer coaching relationships that we developed with one another. We have each benefited from the mutual respect, deep listening, and encouragement, and the combination of challenge and support that we gave to one another since first beginning our work together. Regular reflection on our own process as a collaborative team furthered our understanding of the necessary conditions for both task and personal learning to occur in peer coaching relationships. This project has been a true peer coaching and learning process for all of us, and as we encountered and managed our own relational challenges along the way, we refined the model presented in this book.

Over time we have come to realize that some people see peer coaching everywhere and that others don’t recognize it even when it is happening right before them. Thus, we see a critical need to “name it and frame it.” Our primary aim is to enable individuals, HR/OD practitioners, and organizations to see opportunities to foster peer coaching and then to take the necessary actions to bring this resource to life. We have drawn on our collective experiences in health care, education, the private sector, and the public sector to ensure that you can apply the practices we are advocating in a variety of settings. We invite you to apply the models and tools illustrated in the following pages to discover the great potential of effective peer coaching for you and for those you serve.

Many individuals and organizations have contributed to our deep understanding of peer coaching and the necessary conditions for realizing its potential as a developmental tool. Though we cannot possibly mention them all, we want to call attention to those closest to this effort. First, we thank our editor, Margo Beth Fleming, who has encouraged and supported us throughout our journey with this book. We also want to sincerely thank various scholars who have influenced our thinking about developmental relationships and engaged with us in our efforts to define strategies to foster relational learning at work: Dawn Chandland, Rick Cotton, Jane Dutton, Elana Feldman, Emily Heaphy, Belle Ragins, Monica Higgins, Bill Kahn, Yan Shen, Wendy Murphy, Andy Fleming, and Jeffrey Yip. In addition, we are most grateful for the many students (at Boston University Questrom School of Business, the University of Queensland Business School, and the Wharton School) and the many clients who made it possible for us to try out and refine our ideas about what makes peer coaching work. Thanks, also, to the organizations that through innovative practices have modeled effective peer coaching in their leading-edge efforts to foster employee development.

Finally, we acknowledge and appreciate our many colleagues and friends who provide great support and continue to be critical sounding boards as we developed the principles and practices that led to the articulation of our 3-step Peer Coaching model. In particular, we extend our thanks to Teresa Amabile, Lotte Bailyn, Lloyd Baird, Stacy Blake-Beard, Richard Boyatzis, Elayne Brigham, Bernardo Ferdman, Placida Gallegos, Andrew Griffiths, Bill Hodgetts, Lisa Prior, Ellen Van Oosten, Carol Yamartino, and Iain Watson. From all of the friends and colleagues that we have mentioned in these pages, not only have we acquired much wisdom about the theory and practice of peer coaching, but we have been blessed to be on the receiving end of huge amounts of this powerful learning process as well.

Polly Parker
Tim Hall
Kathy Kram
Ilene Wasserman

Notes

1. P. Parker, D. T. Hall, and K. E. Kram, “Peer Coaching: A Relational Process for Accelerating Career Learning,” Academy of Management Learning and Education 7, no. 4 (2008): 487–503.

2. P. Parker, K. E. Kram, and D. T. Hall, “Exploring Risk Factors in Peer Coaching: A Multilevel Approach,” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 49, no. 3 (2012): 361–387.

3. P. Parker, D. T. Hall, and K. E. Kram, “Peer Coaching: An Untapped Resource for Development,” Organizational Dynamics 43, no. 2 (2014): 122–129.

4. P. Parker, I. Wasserman, K. E. Kram, and D. T. Hall, “A Relational Communication Approach to Peer Coaching,” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 51, no. 2 (2015): 231–252.