A peer group of managers can be just what you need to learn the important stuff, quickly.

There was a point in most of our formal education journeys where group learning was the norm. Primary schools (K-12 in the U.S.), higher education, and even post-graduation learning all take place in group settings, where peers are encouraged to work together and benefit from each other. 

And then you get your degree, and for some reason it all becomes about what you can learn on your own. Adults seek out or are assigned passive self-paced online classes, books, one-on-one coaching. Part of it boils down to efficiency, sure, and don’t get me wrong, there can be a lot of value in individual learning!

But there’s also a problem: learning isn’t inherently efficient. It’s often pretty messy, and goes something like this: We learn something like an idea, concept, or new skill. We try it out (usually incorrectly at first) and then continue to get better at implementing it. Sometimes we learn from our failures more than our successes. By putting whatever we’re learning into practice, we better understand it and learn its boundaries and complexities. When we try it out again, we usually do better.

What is peer learning?

Peer learning is an all-encompassing form of educational strategy which matches individuals based on the traditional educational proctor model, pairing up students who share a common level of experience and knowledge. There are a variety of other education models that all fall under the peer-learning umbrella such as discussion seminars, private study groups, parrainage (a buddy system), peer-assessment schemes, collaborative project or laboratory work, and projects in different sized (cascading) groups to name a few. Educational programs can vastly benefit from developing education and leadership training in a variety of these models, not just a single structure like you find in mentorship or sponsorship. 

Students learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others and by participating in activities in which they can learn from their peers. They develop skills in organizing and planning learning activities, working collaboratively with others, giving and receiving feedback and evaluating their own learning. Peer learning is becoming an increasingly important part of many courses, and it is being used in a variety of contexts and disciplines in many countries.

The benefits of peer-based training

Most of the time, at least in our work lives, none of this occurs on your own. Trying out an idea often requires other people. Experiments can happen in a safe place, where failure has little or no meaning, or they can be risky, with meaningful (and sometimes painful) impacts. But either way, taking an idea out for a spin rarely happens in a vacuum. 

Group learning often allows you to explore and test out ideas without the pressure of consequences. It can also challenge us in different ways than being out there on our own, by providing the benefit of other people’s experiences to accelerate our own learning. It’s an especially powerful tool for developing soft skills, and therefore for creating great leaders.

To harness the full power of group learning, it’s important to have certain elements in place.

Deliberate Peer Groups

When you’re learning in a group, in a controlled situation with your peers, and also with a leader who is able to offer direct guidance and feedback, you’re able to experiment with new ideas in a safe way. It’s more powerful than the passive learning you get from things like reading a case study or listening to a TED talk, because your individual experience, and the experience of your group, connect learning pathways on a more fundamental level. 

The groups that achieve that kind of environment are purposefully formed, with peers who have enough in common to relate to each other and to each other’s challenges. A group with similarities balanced with diversity grows even more from learning from each other’s differences. That balance is one we spend a lot of time on when we create our peer groups at Lead Belay. (We call them Belay Groups.)

A Safe Environment

Got your people. Check. Now there needs to be trust among them for meaningful learning to occur. Group members need to feel safe to be their authentic selves.

That’s why peer groups whose members are all from the same company often fail. In order to learn the most in a short amount of time, we humans can’t be worried that what we say or do while learning could have negative political or social consequences in our workplace. Peer groups must trust each other, and trust that what happens in the group, stays in the group. This is one of the core defining characteristics that make our first emerging ascent group creation so unique.

When a psychologically safe space is created, they begin to benefit from things like practicing skills, admitting weaknesses, and asserting their goals. 

Learning Through Teaching

Concepts often don’t fully sink in until we’re able to explain them to someone else. This is the foundation of every college study group, and it can be very rewarding. The essence of group learning is supporting each other and is especially vital when building skills as a people leader. 

Commonly referred to as the Protégé Effect, there are other several additional benefits to teaching others, beyond the improvement in the ability to learn the material. Such benefits include improved communication skills, increased confidence, and improved leadership ability which can have profound long-term retention effects to help behavioral adaptation. 

Did you ever try to explain a complex problem to someone who didn’t have enough context to understand it? Ever say, “Well, I guess you had to be there.” It can be frustrating for the person explaining it and for the person listening. A group learning together over time has the context necessary to offer feedback and serve as an accountability partner for the future. That benefits both parties.

Learning Retention Scale - Lead Belay

Guidance and Coaching

Deliberate peer groups. Safety and trust. A group that learns together over time. Now, the group needs a coach. One that keeps the group on track and provides the guardrails for a safe environment. Skilled coaches provide ‘just enough’ feedback and insights from their own, preferably a higher level of experience. And they give them space to allow the group to have their own insights. (Learning is a messy balance, remember?) However, some learning structures take this too far. Many C-suite level leadership development programs rely on masterclasses taught in large format seminars, however, masterclasses commonly fail as well

Peer-based learning vs. Mentorship & Sponsorship

While there are some cost benefits of developing high potential management to upper leadership through internal mentorship and sponsorship, this type of learning typically homogenizes work culture and continues to pass along poor leadership habits and styles. Marginal mentoring can have can be the consequence of assigning mentors who are too busy, disinterested, dysfunctional, or simply lack competence in the role. Upper management can fail to provide the proper resources to, evaluate, or reward mentoring.

Additionally, too often top management can often assume that any successful manager can mentor effectively, with minimal (if any) training. Since so many never had mentors themselves, they lack the structure and accountability process for how it is done well. Evidence indicates that poor mentoring can be worse for employees than no mentoring at all. Poorly equipped mentors not only give the training program a bad name in an organization, but they also sabotage retention, commitment, and employee development — the very objectives that drive mentoring initiatives in the first place.


A final thought to keep in mind, for anyone who’s been reading this and thinking about the awful group projects they were forced to be in during school…

First of all, forced is the key word there. Any group of people that are forced together, without careful consideration for the backgrounds, skills, and current challenges of group members, will fail to create a safe learning environment. While cohesion and inclusion are essential in the workplace, the diversity of core management and leadership styles can provide a lot of value when it comes to peer-based learning equity.

Also, most if not all of those school projects dealt with contrived, made-up issues. For true learning to occur, real-world examples that address actual problems are a must, and a key reason why the syllabus structure of Lead Belay’s Emerging Leader Ascent is so effective. 

The work our Belay groups do on a weekly basis addresses real-world issues in group settings, allowing our participants to test out ideas and solve problems that will help them in actual life. It’s not extra work, it’s a place to get work done.

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