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How to Use Peer Learning Groups in Your Leadership Development Program

July 21, 2021

Alex Smith


Why having peer learning groups in your leadership development experiences is crucial and best practices for ensuring your peer learning is a success.

Think about your last memorable learning experience at work. Were you sitting in front of a screen by yourself? Or were you with others? My bet is that other people were part of shaping this moment. That’s why peer learning groups are such a crucial part of leadership development, and why they can be such an added benefit to self-directed leadership development efforts.

It’s no surprise, but people like to learn together. (Check out the joy of “collective effervescence.”) While we absorb an incredible amount of information as we sit alone at our computers, human interaction solidifies these concepts into our real-world learning.

Of course, we’ve gotten used to doing more on our own. According to our 2021 Global Leadership Trends research, leaders are increasingly getting used to the idea of online learning as more of us work remotely. That being said, the majority of learners get more out of online learning if they have an outlet where they can discuss and process what they learned.

The Benefits of Peer Learning Groups for Leadership Development

While we have clients who run the gamut of doing all digital to all in-person leadership development (and every combo in between), companies that incorporate peer learning groups during some or all of their program tend to see stronger results. (Check out an example of one major company that used peer learning groups as a critical part of their global frontline leader program.)

First, leaders get that valuable opportunity to network with other peer leaders, especially those from other parts of the company. It’s a powerful opportunity to get to know one another and create one shared leadership culture.

Furthermore, deeper learning occurs when leaders are sharing experiences with one another. In fact, a key Harvard study showed that students did better on tests when they participated in active learning, versus simply absorbing information through lecture.

Peer learning groups also provide a safe space for skill practice and peer coaching. This enhances a leader’s feedback and coaching skills and increases accountability for behavior change. Along with increased accountability, learning with peers can provide a healthy pressure to maintain momentum for on-the-job application of new skills. When leaders see other leaders who they went through development experiences with succeeding on the job, this can serve as a positive model for them to follow.

Finally, peer learning groups for leadership development leverage content and learning to address leadership challenges. Naturally, a collaborative learning format will bring other perspectives and challenges to light, including those that a leader wouldn’t have considered on their own. With instant feedback from multiple perspectives, leaders quickly get a more nuanced view of the effect their behavior has on others.

When to Use Peer Learning Groups

Peer learning is automatically built into group learning journeys, whether done in person or virtually. But as many companies increasingly rely on self-directed or digital learning, peer learning groups are critical for creating accountability, retention, and skill application.

We’ve often seen self-directed learners get in peer learning groups and have several “aha” moments. For example, I’ve heard participants say, “I didn’t realize that content was there. I’ll have to check it out!” or “I never would have thought to apply that skill like that.”

Peer learning groups are also very helpful for the onboarding of a leader who is new to their role. Or for a leader who is new to the company. First-time leaders going through leadership development also often find a sense of camaraderie when learning with other first-time leaders.

How to Structure Peer Learning Groups

What are best practices for how to structure peer learning groups? Here are four tips:

1. Keep groups small. We recommend groups of no more than 3-4 learners each.

2. Keep learning sessions short. Schedule peer learning sessions in increments of either 30 or 60 minutes to avoid meeting fatigue.

3. Consider cadence. Make sure cadence is aligned with learners’ schedules and your program’s objectives.

4. Put some thought into the “who.” Pair learners with individuals from a different division, function, or location to expose them to new people they don’t normally work with.

What Should a Peer Learning Session Look Like?

As group structure is important to get right when it comes to peer learning, it’s also important to consider how you set up peer learning group sessions. Here are some tips:

1. Make sure each session is purposeful. Provide participants with a recommended structure ahead of time, with topics and/or questions to prompt thinking. And don’t forget to include instructions for any prework participants should complete before the session.

2. Remind participants to use communication skills they have learned. For example, ask them to refresh their knowledge of the guidelines for having an effective interaction.

3. Leverage content to expand skills. Ensure the session stays focused on the development of new leadership skills. And think about how the session content can be used to achieve this goal.

4. Set expectations for the participant to discuss insights with their manager. Similarly, ensure the participant’s manager is aware that their direct report(s) are part of a leadership development program. Then set expectations about how they can be supportive.

5. Leave time for group interactions. For example, incorporate time for groups to share “gold nuggets” with the large group.

How to Set Up a Peer Learning Group for Success

As with every learning experience, the leader of the session plays an important role in the success of the experience. It’s up to the session leader to set the tone and environment for discussion.

In many cases, our clients choose to have someone from HR or their learning and development team lead their peer learning sessions. This is especially important for the first session to ensure that people see a positive model of how to do it. Afterward, you might consider having peer groups lead themselves. In every subsequent session, assign a different leader to act as the facilitator for that group discussion.

However, peer-led groups still need a structure to follow to ensure success. Provide a clear structure and series of discussion questions to the session leader ahead of time. This will help them be prepared. This will also ensure the session stays on track and is completed in the allotted time frame.

Finally, encourage learners to take a few minutes to reflect at the end of each session. Ask the session’s group leader to compile the group’s feedback and send it to your company’s learning and development team. This will ensure you can make adjustments quickly so that group learning sessions remain useful and valuable.

Why Peer Learning Is Key for Leadership Development

As self-directed learning becomes more common, adding peer learning to your leadership development program can improve accountability, practical application, and your leadership culture. Most of all, leaders really like to learn together.

With these best practices for ensuring your peer learning groups are successful, you’re well on your way to creating memorable and effective leadership development experiences.

Learn about DDI’s leadership development subscription, which offers the best of both worlds in group and self-directed learning.

Alex Smith is a consulting manager within DDI’s US Operations. He leads a team of consultants and is the engagement manager for several of DDI’s largest client partnerships across the globe. Alex lives an hour outside of NYC with his wife and two young children, ages 6 and 4.

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