One of the unintended consequences of the constant right-sizing and flattening of our organizations is that we now live in a world where managers just don’t have time to do all that’s required of them in their daily jobs, let alone find time for coaching their employees.
Yet coaching is a critical job for any manager who wants to improve her team’s performance. Research shows that training alone can improve performance by 22%, while training accompanied by coaching (that is, collaborative problem solving, feedback, and evaluation) can improve performance by 88%.
So what are time-constrained leaders to do?
In our research at Ferrazzi Greenlight, we’ve found an extraordinarily rich and robust coaching resource sitting around us each and every day — our peers. And the ideal venue for peer-to-peer coaching is already built into our schedules — the staff meeting. You can use staff meetings the way a sports coach uses practice time: to run new plays and build new, better habits. The time devoted to coaching during staff meetings can also propel team members to encourage each other “off the court.”
The staff meeting is one of the only times when all of the “players” are together on the field. It’s also the one time the manager has total control of the agenda and can micro-coach the movements of the team, so that new muscle memories are built under her watchful eye. On a winning sports team, the coach certainly spends time with individual players, but also has group practices where the team runs plays with the coach, who sometimes gives the entire group advice, and sometimes singles out individuals. Coaches then do the same during actual games.
The locker room conversations and peer-to-peer encouragement and correction that happen among great sports teams occur because the best athletes know that it’s not just individual performance that matters — it’s the collective team performance. If they fail, they fail together. Our research has shown that the same peer-to-peer dynamic can be used in business as a powerful driver of performance.
We recommend these ways to unleash effective peer-to-peer coaching in staff meetings:
1. Shift the meeting from report-outs to collaborative problem solving.
Change the structure of the meeting from individuals reporting their own performance and successes to collaborative problem solving, where the leader or a member of the team brings a topic for group discussion.
The importance of this exercise is that team members begin to see their peers as a rich source of advice — one that they might not have gone to before. This type of collaborative problem solving usually yields better decisions — and is a more enjoyable way to work. Just be sure to follow a few rules:
- Set the topics in advance.
- Distribute a one-page topic description beforehand for people to reflect on, which includes a specific question that you want the group to address.
- In the room, break into small groups of three or four to debate the topic, in order to gain higher degrees of candor.
- Don’t take decision-making control away from the individual who brought the question to the table. This should be a rich source of diverse input, not an abdication of the responsibility to the group, and not an exercise in reaching consensus.
2. Facilitate periodic, open 360-degree reviews.
In “Open 360s,” each team member gives very honest, constructive feedback to peers. The sessions are designed to get individual feedback and instill greater candor and intimacy within the team in a safe, and even caring, fashion.
Each individual hears from everyone at the table about what they admire most about his or her performance for no more than 30 seconds each. This sets up respect and safety and helps the individual welcome input from team members. Then, there is a second go-round where individuals offer constructive criticism. This time, each person shares in this way: “Because I care about your success, and your success is critical to this team’s success, I might suggest … ”
Here are a few rules of thumb for the person receiving the feedback:
- After each go-round, you may ask clarifying questions. You may not be defensive. You may not push back.
- There is no obligation to change. You don’t necessarily have to do anything with what’s suggested to you.
- At the end, say, “Thank you,” and recognize that all this data is yours to chew on and do with what you will.
This exercise is a smart way to open up, through a formal process, the peer-to-peer feedback that should exist at all times. It also helps people see that their team members are resilient and that, perhaps, they can accept this kind of feedback at other critical times. When you couch feedback in service of others, instead of punitively or judgmentally in service of oneself, you lead with the affirmative and establish a level of respect that breaks down potential hostilities.
Professor James O’Toole and my late friend-professor Warren Bennis found in their research that teams who practice and exhibit candor in the workplace outperform their counterparts. They also discovered that whatever momentary discomfort leaders and employees may experience is more than offset by the fact that the unveiled information helps them make improved decisions.
3. Give ‘em homework and hold ‘em accountable.
Have each person in the room identify one behavior that they personally want to work on between now and the next meeting. Have everyone “buddy up” with another person in the room and require that, between now and the next meeting, they speak by phone, or in person, two or three times to check in on progress on their self-selected goal. As the leader, you have to assure that this offline peer coaching actually occurs by asking individuals to share their successes, or to request additional peer support if they feel stuck.
As leaders, we all know that we need to do more coaching. So let’s use the forum we’ve already established — the staff meeting — to encourage our team members to complement our efforts. Those who adopt this strategy may find themselves on the rare dream team where members can look at each other across the table and can say, “I’m not going to let you fail.”
This article was originally published in Harvard Business Review and can be accessed here