How to Create and Run Group Coaching Programs that Get Results Without Wearing You Out, Even if Your Curriculum Isn’t Perfect

What you can learn about getting better outcomes for your students from failed heart surgeries, Latin dance classes, and fascinating research on how insight really works.

I spend a lot of time in group coaching programs whether as the teacher or the student. Partially because I enjoy them and partially because when I’m in one role, I learn things I can bring to the other role. 

I think of it as a fun recon mission.

Recently I was doing another one of my favorite things… listening to multiple books at the same time, while driving to Latin dance class, where I am (you guessed it) a student in a group learning environment.

As you can see, my life boils down to a few things. 

1- Can I learn it? 

2- Can I teach it? 

3- How are other people managing the learning and the teaching?

And btw, it doesn’t matter what the topic is. 

I just love to learn.

What I’d Do If I Was Alone on a Deserted Island for Months at a Time

You could drop me off on a deserted island, come back in a few months, and ask, “So what’s up?”

I’d likely respond with, “You’ll never guess what I learned. Here let me show you.”

But back to my story…

I’m listening to a book called Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think by Tasha Eurich. In the book, she describes a study on heart surgeons. The heart surgeons were experienced and at the top of their career.

Just before the study began, a new way of doing bypass surgery had been discovered. The new surgery had fewer risks for the patient than the old surgery. 

The only question was: How well would surgeons adapt to the new type of surgery?

Or to put it another way, can you teach an old dog new tricks? If so, how?

Teaching Old Dogs How to Do Heart Surgery

So here’s what happened. 

Researchers organized the surgeons into two groups: those doing the surgery and those watching from the gallery. (If you’ve ever watched Grey’s Anatomy, then you’ve got the visual.)

The surgeries proceeded using the new technique.

As you can imagine, there were two outcomes… surgeries either went well or they didn’t.

Now, here’s where the exciting part kicks in. 

After each surgery, the researchers asked the surgeons questions designed to predict who would do the best in future surgeries. 

A surprising pattern began to emerge.

When surgeries went well, the “doer” surgeon said with a shrug, “Of course things went well. I’m good at what I do.”

But when surgeries went badly, the “doer” surgeon blamed it on bad luck.

Would the watchers have the same reaction?

Interestingly, no.

When surgeries went well, the “watcher” surgeon said with a sigh, “They’re so good. I’ll never be that good.”

But when surgeries had a bad outcome, the “watcher” surgeon took careful notes on what went wrong and vowed to never make that mistake.

So who had better outcomes across all future similar surgeries?

You guessed it. 

The watching surgeon who witnessed surgeries with poor outcomes did the best. Why? 

Critical Feedback Loops That Are Actually Constructive, Without Freaking People Out

The researchers concluded that when a person gets feedback that doesn’t harm their sense of self, it’s easier for them to take the advice and use it.

But if the feedback impacts their sense of self, the only way to restore internal equilibrium is to blame it on outside forces, like bad luck.

The problem is if you blame something on bad luck, there’s no emotional energy left to learn and do better next time.

It would be better to say, “Okay sure, it’s bad luck. But just in case my actions played some small part in what went wrong, what can I do better next time?”

Ideally everyone would have the presence of mind and psychological safety to think this way but the normal reaction is, “It was bad luck. Move on,” even for world class surgeons.

What does this have to do with group coaching programs?

How to Strategically Design Group Coaching Programs to Maximize Learning and Keep Students Engaged

Group coaching programs might not be as high stakes as bypass surgery but we can pull a surprising number of useful tips for learning and teaching from the study.

Here are a few to get you started:

  1. Think about the structure of the program. If you’ve got your group coaching program set up like a class with a Q&A at the end, you’re missing out on important learning opportunities. Restructure the format to include more “hot seats” and other in-the-moment individualized feedback.
  2. Trust the process. It’s strangely comforting as a teacher to know that students learn best by watching other students make mistakes. Why? It takes the pressure off having to be the perfect teacher or present the material in the perfect manner. It’s better to share the material, let students use it, and adjust along the way.
  3. Focus your topic and narrow the scope of the program. You’re probably quickly coming to the conclusion that I’m proposing a messy process. And you’re right. Notice how the surgeons were experienced people learning a variation on a skill they already knew. They weren’t med school students who needed to learn everything from scratch. The takeaway is to focus your program on a specific outcome meant for a specific kind of person and aim at getting concrete results. 
  4. Create a hybrid model that allows room for your own creativity. Here’s a quick example from my life. In my Latin dance class, the teacher runs the first half of the class in a “follow the leader” format. You’ll hear him say, “Now watch. I do, then you do.” The second half of the class, he watches individual dancers and provides in the moment feedback. Anyone standing nearby can see and hear the corrections. And you can bet that by the time he gets to me, I’ve done my best to incorporate his feedback!
  5. Be a perpetual learner. Group coaching is one of the most satisfying parts of my life. Watching students grow and achieve their dreams is wonderful. But I never forget what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence. If you’re not in a group class or coaching program, go join one. Understanding both sides of the experience is the key to helping your students be their best.