Here is a Way Development & Aid Workers Can Overcome Isolation at Work

by Shana Montesol Johnson

Isolation.  It’s a fact of life for many people who work in international development.  There are several reasons.  Field-based expat staff may be the only person at their level in their local office, or the only expat on the team (or one of very few). Managers feel “lonely at the top” and don’t feel comfortable venting about their work-related frustrations with a team they lead.  Even people who aren’t the leader of their team or office may feel isolated.  Perhaps they don’t feel comfortable sharing their struggles with their boss.  Or maybe the boss him/herself is the problem.

Independent consultants who fly in and out may feel they’re not part of the organization, lacking a career path, true colleagues, and continuity.  Then there are cultural, language, and organizational barriers that separate expats from their local staff counterparts.

Many people in this situation tend to spend a lot of time talking about work with their spouses, partners, or close friends.  This can be a great source of support.  However, it can also put undue pressure on the person who is getting an earful.  Over time, they may tire of hearing the same complaints.  Someone who doesn’t work with you – or work in development – may not “get” your work context.  And a spouse will likely have a hard time remaining neutral and impartial because they have a stake in their partner career success (this is why I can’t coach my husband, even though he works in international development and fits the profile of many of my clients).

In situations of isolation, it’s great to work one-on-one with a coach who can help you identify blind spots, gain clarity on your priorities, and help you design actions that will bring about desired changes.

However, it’s not always possible, practical, or financially feasible to work with a professional coach.  An alternative I have seen work effectively is peer coaching.

What is a Peer Coach?

A peer coach is someone who is at a similar level to you in your organization (or even in another organization).  He or she knows and/or understands your work context.  While not trained as a coach, he or she is willing to coach you according to a simple (yet effective) peer coaching model.

Peer Coaching in an International Development NGO

Cassie and Leanne both work as managers in an international development NGO.  (Names and details have been changed.)  Cassie is based in Nepal, and Leanne is in Bangladesh.  As expat staff, they manage teams of locally-hired staff as well as consultants.  They met at an internal training that brought together people at their level from various country offices.  Since their organization does not offer executive coaching to staff at their level, Cassie and Leanne decided to team up to provide peer coaching to each other.

They conduct their coaching sessions via Skype.  They take turns sharing what’s on their minds, and providing coaching/feedback.  They cover a range of topics, whatever is pressing: tough decisions, managing a difficult relationship with a boss/staff member, tricky project management issues, musings about career moves.

Leanne reports that one of the main benefits of peer coaching is simply the opportunity to think out loud.  By talking through a problem or challenge, she ends up coming up with a solution that hadn’t even occurred to her before the peer coaching session.

Cassie values the opportunity to vent, share, and trouble-shoot with someone who understands where she is coming from.  Since they have similar roles in different parts of the same organization, the two women don’t have to explain all the details of their respective situations.

They admit that they could benefit from scheduling their peer coaching calls more regularly.  Sometimes their jam-packed work schedules mean that several weeks go by between peer coaching sessions.  But they also know that if a crisis comes up, or a decision needs to be made, they can set up a last-minute call and have a thinking session when it’s most needed.

What Makes This Peer Coaching Relationship Work?

  1. Their conversations are confidential.
  2. They trust each other and are willing to be honest with other – both in terms of sharing the problems, as well as providing a reality check when needed.
  3. They are both good listeners, and not intent on promoting their own idea, advice, or agenda.
  4. They understand each other’s work context.
  5. Their personalities are such that they benefit from thinking aloud with a trusted partner.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of these peer coaching sessions is that Cassie and Leanne now feel less isolated.  “Peer coaching can be a real lifesaver.  It’s certainly a relief to know I’m not alone – or crazy,” shares Leanne.

If you’d like to try peer coaching, stay tuned for next week’s post on steps to get you started.  Sign up here for my free weekly newsletter, so you’re sure not to miss it.

Have you had a peer coach before?  Are you considering trying it?  I’d love to hear from you – drop me a line in the Comments section below.


Photo by emdot.

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