Learning With Peers

If you want to grow as a leader or help others to become leaders, it's important to think carefully about the process of learning.

Have you ever been in a great conversation and been surprised by something you said -- whether it was your own insight, your own language or the source of your comment?

These events happen to me every once in a while and are the source of some of my most cherished learning. And the things I learn in these conversations often become the bedrock of my understanding of a range of ideas. They tend to be things that reorder my thinking, make connections between ideas I previously considered discrete or unearth values that are held dear but were previously unarticulated.

Such epiphanies are often followed by a quick reaction. "Who said that?" or "Where did that come from?" or "I didn't know that I believed that."

These conversations are usually followed by exhaustion, satisfaction and reflection. It's almost as if mental energy were converted into the matter of ideas and everyone involved was drained in the process. The Promethean moment passes into admiration of a new thought.

I've noticed a few things about these conversations. Most of them share some common characteristics.

Everyone involved seems to enter a state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has dubbed "flow." Time seems to stand still as everyone loses himself in the challenge of keeping up with the discussion. Everyone feels challenged to think in new ways and to pay attention to the issues at hand.

Ideas take center stage. If the participants brought individual agendas to the conversation, those seem to fade and give way to the excitement of following the flow of ideas. Social posturing drops out.

Many conversations, especially those at work, have subtexts of swagger. People try to establish dominance relationships, prove their superior intelligence or reinforce formal social hierarchies. But in these conversations, pretensions are temporarily put on hold.

And usually these conversations take place within or between groups of peers. I don't remember ever having this sort of experience during a lecture from some expert, whether that was a learned professor, a boss or a sage. Mind-blowing insights usually seem to come from interchanges among fellow explorers, not from the passive reception of information. Even the best personal feedback rarely reorders thinking in this way.

This is the experience of learning with peers -- not from them, but with them. And the opportunities for this are much too rare. Several obstacles seem to get in the way, especially when managers may have to expose weaknesses to learn from them.

Too often, we think about learning as a solitary activity or a passive one. We focus on receiving information, mastering conceptual material or building some new skill. Books, lectures, e-learning and, yes, even magazine articles reduce learning to a solo sport. Of course, you can learn things alone, but significant insights seem to grow out of interchanges with others.

Managers rarely engage in these peer-to-peer exchanges. Sadly, too often, managers consider their peers to be only competitors. Peers are competitors for promotions, for budgets, for talent and for the attention of those already in power. In the corporate world, viewed solely through this lens, a conversation about ideas with peers would be insane. One would risk sharing important information or exposing a personal weakness that could be exploited by opponents. So, many managers forgo their most promising source of insight and advancement.

And who has time for ideas at work? We're all too busy doing things to stop and think about them. Reflection is for retirement. Understanding is for sissies. Thinking is for ivory-tower academics. Even long sentences are seen as the enemy of profit. Activity breeds success.

But in fact, facilitating cooperation in activity and learning is part of the leader's job. Things are not black and white, and managers must balance competition with collaboration in order to be personally and collectively successful.

When it comes to insight, there are things that can be learned but can't be taught. Sometimes, the best thing a leader can do to develop subordinates is not to tell them what to believe, but to create an environment in which they can figure out what they believe for themselves.

Next month, I'll write about how to create an environment in which peers learn from one another. But I'd like to include your ideas. E-mail your experiences of learning with peers to me at info@paulglen.com.

Paul Glen is the director of the Developing Technical Leaders program ( www.developingtechnicalleaders.com) and author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass, 2002). Contact him at info@paulglen.com.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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