Why does small group coaching work so well in the new hybrid-normal?
Summary: Demand for small group coaching (SGC) leadership development has grown enormously since early 2020. Feedback from many participants suggests they may never want to return to a classroom workshop again. Why the buzz, and will it last? Darin Fox reports.
Written by Darin Fox 10 Feb 2022

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Why does small group coaching work so well in the new hybrid-normal?

Demand for small group coaching (SGC) leadership development has grown enormously since early 2020. Feedback from many participants suggests they may never want to return to a classroom workshop again. Why the buzz, and will it last? Darin Fox reports.

In January 2020, HFL’s founder and CEO Alistair Gordon wrote about our eight principles for small group coaching (one of the most-read articles we published that year).

January 2020 was before we knew anything about lockdowns, social distancing, and hybrid work models. Since then, demand for small group coaching from HFL’s clients has gone from strength to strength. The evidence: the number of graduates growing faster than ever, our highest Net promoter Score ratings, our multi-year partnerships with clients, and the feedback from our participants, many of whom state they may never want to return to a classroom workshop again.

So why has small group coaching (SGC) proven to be so successful in developing leaders and experts? Admittedly, necessity was the mother of invention. Classroom-sized workshops were often impossible over the last two years, so we had to adapt. As a result, we have lifted our own capability in delivering this method of learning to our clients. However, during those instances when parts of Australia, if not the whole country were under almost no lockdown restrictions, we found many of our clients preferred the SGC method over the classroom. As we start moving towards some form of hybrid normality, this preference appears to become the norm.

We would like to share with you some reasons why we believe SGC is here to stay.

  1. SGC suits leaders and technical experts. Alistair’s article two years ago about SGC was in relation to our front-line leadership development program Fastlead. However, SGC may be even more effective in our flagship program Mastering Expertship – a development course for deep knowledge experts that involves 360 feedback, SGC and 1-on-1 coaching. The more introverted and introspective nature of many experts lends itself well to development and coaching in small groups compared to larger group or classroom environments.

  2. There will be fewer large workshops. COVID may have had a permanent impact on our ability and expectations of remote working. Bringing a large group of people together for a classroom-style workshop will continue to be a precarious exercise at best, if not impossible at times. SGC offers greater certainty to both the participants and the organisation. Workshops will return, but virtual is likely to remain a popular option.

  3. SGC suits modern workforce mentality. There is no doubt that many people have grown to become more uncomfortable in group situations. Rates of anxiety and depression have increased three-fold according to some reports. Asking some people to come together for a large group activity like a workshop too quickly may cause a level of undue distress. Some may argue it may be better to quickly get back on the horse, but any adult learning professional would counter by saying that stress and learning are arch enemies. The brain does not allow us to learn new skills and knowledge while we feel stressed or threatened, particularly in classroom settings.

  4. SGC is about on-the-job training, off the job. Several studies (1 Study: Learning Something New Could Help Reduce Stress and 2 It’s the Little Things That Matter ) have shown that learning on the job can help alleviate stress about the job - if a safe environment can be created. SGC can provide this in spades compared to a multi-day classroom workshop because they are short, focused interventions that give participants several opportunities to practise on the job what they have learned. SGC gives them a safe, confidential environment to share and discuss their experiences of practising the new skills in-between SGC sessions.

  5. Small groups, big talk. Asking questions or speaking out in a group situation can be intimidating for many people. Remote working has likely exacerbated this problem, and some people who may not have had any issues in the past may find they are now uncomfortable. SGC makes it much more likely that everyone will feel safe speaking their mind and that everyone will contribute equally. Participants report that they really enjoy the interaction between three or four colleagues in a typical pod.

  6. Small groups allow enormous flexibility. As much as a smaller group helps ensure equal participation, it also, therefore, ensures everyone is learning. The coach is better able to adjust and flex to meet the needs of each individual and their situation, in part, because the coach is also better able to get to know each participant personally. The interpersonal dynamics of a smaller group are more likely to be self-managed by the group over time, and eventually not require the intervention of the coach.

  7. Small group coaches grow leader-coaches. The group’s self-management also leads to the group learning from each other. One of the most common pieces of feedback we receive from graduates of our SGC programs is the participants valued the insights and advice they received from their group members as much as they did from their coach. Due to the more intimate size, many groups agree to keep meeting after the formal program has been completed – turning the group into a peer-based coaching circle. And their coaching skills rapidly advance.

  8. Reality bites. Small group coaching is closer to what we experience in reality. While we may work in an office with dozens of people around us (or we used to), the reality is we only work closely with a relatively smaller number of people each day. Our daily interactions and how we work together are more closely replicated in SGC than they are in a classroom, workshop environment. As a result, participants further develop their interpersonal and collaboration skills in real-time.

  9. Global learning. Finally, virtual technology and remote working have allowed HFL to reach a bigger global audience. We are now working with clients across Australia, NZ, Asia, the UK, North America and Africa. SGC, along with HFL’s coaching techniques developed for small groups, allows us to create “pods” of participants from multiple countries and time zones with a greater degree of flexibility. And for a fraction of the cost of flying participants into a classroom. This also allows clients to pair participants from different regions that would never ordinarily learn together – a huge advantage in breaking down geographical silos.

If you would like to know more about small group coaching, you can subscribe to receive updates to our blog or arrange for someone from our team to contact you. We have also provided a complete guide to how we go about organising small group coaching – all of our many lessons learned over 8 years now – in this white paper, so you can DIY SGC in your organisation.

1 Study: Learning Something New Could Help Reduce Stress

2 It’s the Little Things That Matter

Download 13 Rules to build and run your own small group coaching program