Peer coaching can be a great way to tackle interpersonal problems that can derail your team. True, it’s the boss’s job to deal with these problems. Also true is that you can step into the leadership role when necessary.
Let’s say you, Archie, and Mike are collaborating on a project. Or, rather, you are collaborating. Archie and Mike seem bent on undermining each other — which means that they’re also undermining both you and the project.
Archie is a difficult guy, no doubt about it. But you and everyone else in the office manages to work with him. Mike could learn how to do so too. Maybe you can coach him toward a more productive working relationship with Archie.
If you’re like some of my clients, you might worry about how to get started, how to end, and what to do in between that will keep things moving forward and not take too much time. You do have a job to do, after all.
Here are some strategies you can use to keep peer coaching conversations manageable.
Your goal is to be helpful to Mike. That mindset should make it easier for you to approach him. You can private chat him toward the end of a virtual meeting to say, “Hey, can we talk after this?” Or maybe you and Mike will be talking about some aspect of the project, and he’ll say something about how much easier it is to talk to you than to Archie. Take advantage of the opportunity!
Ask open-ended questions: Rather than “What’s up with you and Archie?” try “How is the project going?” or “How do you think that meeting went?” Remember, your goal is to help Mike find a solution, not to tell him what to do (which won’t work anyway).
At some point, Mike is likely to rant. He may start off with how Archie always dismisses his ideas, but next thing you know he is going on about Archie’s politics, his language, his inability to manage Zoom, and Mike’s own frustrations with virtual meetings.
This is where you employ what professional coaches call “intrusion.” (I’m sorry this coaching skill has such a rude-sounding name, but it’s accurate.) Mike can’t diagnose and solve his own problem if he’s spiraling into some version of “Everything is wrong and Archie is terrible.”
My go-to intrusion line is “OK, I think we have enough to go on.” Then I repeat what the coachee said about the work situation: “So your problem in the meeting was the way Archie responded to your marketing idea?”
You can’t fix either Mike or Archie. You can only help Mike decide what to do.
Ask powerful questions to help Mike figure things out for himself. He is much more likely to follow through on actions and solutions he identifies himself than on anything you might suggest.
Or, rather, let Mike set goals and deadlines. Your job is to help him be accountable to his own intentions.
You might be tempted to have a separate conversation with Archie about what he does that riles Mike. Don’t. You’ve chosen to work with Mike. His relationship with Archie is his business. Let him mind it, even if he minds it more slowly than you’d like.
Also, both you and Mike must focus on what Mike can do. Inevitably, he will want to tell you how Archie should change. You may agree! But neither of you can change Archie. Keep asking Mike questions about actions he can take.
Peer coaching is built on trust. Neither Mike nor anyone else in the office will trust you if you blab, even to one other person, about your coaching conversations.
Ideally your conversation leads Mike to identify a plan, like “I’m going to talk to Archie about this.” Now close the conversation by building in accountability. “That sounds like a good plan. When will you have that conversation? Will you let me know when you’ve done it?”
You’re asking only for a report that the Archie conversation has happened, not how it went. That would open up a new coaching conversation — which Mike hasn’t asked for.
Chances are good that Mike will end your series of coaching conversations. Either things will get “better enough,” or Mike will hit Pause, maybe because he’s afraid of the next step.
The accountability you’ve built in will keep your coaching approach from becoming an endless merry-go-round of complaints and good but failed intentions. Mike won’t be inclined to come back to you for the third time to say he didn’t follow through.
If he does — and if you’ve done what you can to help him find a step that does feel doable — you can gently say, “Maybe we should put this on hold for now. I’d be happy to be your thinking partner when you’re ready to consider next steps.” (See what I did there?)
Don’t make yourself endlessly available. Your goal is to be helpful, not to become the perpetual solver of Mike’s challenges. When you can’t be helpful any more, for whatever reason, calling a halt or a pause is not just OK, it’s the right thing to do.