Create Peer Learning Groups

Ultimate Guide to Leadership Development

Leaders Love Learning Together

Think about your last memorable learning experience at work. Were you sitting in front of a screen by yourself? Or were you with others? Our bet is that other people were part of shaping this moment. Peer learning groups are a crucial part of leadership development, and they can be a valuable addition to self-directed learning.

It’s no surprise that people like to learn together. (Check out the joy of “collective effervescence.”) While we can absorb an incredible amount of information independently, human interaction can solidify concepts into real-world learning.

Of course, many of us are growing accustomed to doing more on our own. According to DDI’s 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 value from online learning if they have an outlet where they can discuss and process what they learned.

bar graph of leaders' preferences to learn online precovid (28%), during crisis (36%), and new normal (40%) according to DDI's 2021 Global Leadership Trends report

The Benefits of Peer Learning Groups for Leadership Development

Our clients use a variety of approaches ranging from all digital to all in-person leadership development (remember the pendulum?). But companies that incorporate peer learning groups during some or all of their programs tend to see stronger results. 

Peer learning groups give leaders the opportunity to network with other leaders, including those from other parts of the company. Group learning can offer leaders a powerful opportunity to get to know one another and create a shared leadership culture.

Plus, deeper learning can occur when leaders share experiences. In fact, a key study from Harvard University showed that students did better on tests when they participated in active learning, versus absorbing information through lecture.

Peer learning groups also provide a safe space for skill practice. Peers offer a comfortable environment for leaders to coach and give feedback, increasing accountability for behavior change. Learning with peers can also apply healthy pressure to use new skills on the job. Leaders who complete development training together can be positive models for each other in the workplace.

Finally, use of peer learning groups facilitates greater diversity to address leadership challenges. Collaborative learning formats bring diverse perspectives, experiences, and challenges to light, making it possible for leaders to consider other approaches and viewpoints. With instant feedback from multiple perspectives, leaders may quickly get a more nuanced view of the effect their behavior has on others.

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When to Use Peer Learning Groups

As many companies increasingly rely on self-directed or digital learning, peer learning groups are critical for creating accountability, retention, and skill application.

lightbulb surrounded by three people icons, written to the right: Peer learning groups are critical for creating accountability, retention, and skill application.

We’ve often seen self-directed learners try out peer learning groups and experience several “Aha!” moments. For example, we’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.”

Additionally, peer learning groups are helpful for onboarding a leader who is new to their role or to the company. First-time leaders 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 structuring peer learning groups? Here are four tips:

  1. Keep groups small. We recommend groups of no more than 3-4 leaders 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 the cadence is aligned with leaders’ schedules and your program’s objectives.
  4. Put some thought into the “who.” Pair leaders with individuals from different divisions, functions, or locations to expose them to people they don’t normally work with.

What Should a Peer Learning Session Look Like?

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 leaders 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 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. Ensure a participant’s manager is aware that their direct report is 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 peer 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. Choosing the right session leader is especially important for the first session because participants need to see positive modeling of new skills.

In many cases, our clients choose to have someone from HR or their learning and development team lead their peer learning sessions.  After the first session, you might consider having peer groups lead themselves by assigning a different leader to facilitate each group discussion.

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

Finally, encourage learners 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. Asking for feedback on the session ensures you can adjust quickly so that group learning sessions remain useful and valuable.

dashboard with faces ranging from mad on one side to happy on the other, with a dial pointing to the happy face, written to the right: Pro Tip: Facilitation Feedback - At the end of a development session, ask the session’s group leader to compile the group’s feedback and send it to your company’s learning and development team.

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 to ensure your peer learning groups are successful, you’re well on your way to creating memorable and effective leadership development experiences.