Decades ago, we used to have friends. There was a small group of people, and may several groups, with which you would sit, talk and help each other understand and address life’s challenges.

You could vent to them. You could ask for help. You could get a reality check if others think you have gone too far in your opinions or behavior. This was the essence of the learning community. If you go back far enough, it was a group of Ancient Greeks sitting around and discussing important issues of the day. Then came backgammon and coffee houses and it changed. Seriously, it changed only because it emerged as a single gender process.

The fastest growing application of coaching in today’s organizations is peer coaching. That is a group of often 5-12 people of similar status or rank in an organization, or friends from different careers, who meet on a regular basis to discuss life and work. Paying for a professional coach is not feasible for many of the people in organizations. So people have turned back to talking to each other.

In the 60’s and 70’s, these groups were called T groups (sensitivity training), then in the 80’s it was called quality circles, then employee participation groups in the 80’s and self-managing work teams in the 90’s. Now we have study teams, learning groups, book clubs, and all sorts of different excuses people use to get together and help each other. In helping each other, people learn. They learn about different ways to looking at the world, different emotional reactions to the same events or people. In some cases, the purpose of the group is learning. Anyone who has completed a graduate degree program knows the importance of forming a study group. In executive MBA programs, they are the vehicle through which most of the learning occurs. Because of this emphasis on study teams in EMBA programs, their graduates often feel comfortable and see the benefit of working in teams. Many graduates of MBA programs grow to hate (maybe dislike is a better term, but which ever they avoid them) working in teams. This disposition occurs even when research shows that the MBAs (like the EMBAs) have learned to work in teams better than when they entered their program.

Peer coaching groups should be organic. That is, they cannot be artificially created or formed. Organizations with success in using them start small. Begin encouraging people to form such groups. Give them an extra hour at lunch time to meet with their group once a week. Possibly give them a few hours of group or team work training to manage their own process. Ask them to acknowledge reflection and encourage experiments in how they act and work on problems. Praise novelty in their efforts. When others see some of the groups working, members enjoying it and benefiting from participation, more peer coaching groups will form. Most of the time, the participation in the peer coaching groups will spread and become a part of the culture. At that point, you have achieved creating a learning community!

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