Goal Setting: The role of peer reinforcement in learning and development

Goal Setting: The Role of Peer Reinforcement in Learning and Development

By Mark Probert

In this second post about goal setting for personal development, I’m concentrating on the importance of colleagues in achieving personal development goals.

In the first blog I mentioned Robert Cialdini’s law of commitment and consistency. The principle states that making a public and visible commitment makes feeling the need to be consistent much stronger. And that got me thinking, how can you use peer reinforcement to stay on track with learning and development?

  • Make Sure Teams Have Full Visibility of Each Other’s Development Goals: Aristotle said: ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.’  Michal Jordan said: ‘Talent wins games. Teamwork and intelligence win championships.’ So, learning something new can only convert into a strong skill though practice. Great teams practice together, and by doing so enhance the capabilities of the team as well as the individual. But most organisations treat personal development as a personal thing that’s only shared between the individual and the line manager. This approach misses out on the benefits of the combined wisdom of Aristotle and Jordan. So, I think it makes sense for organisations to make personal development a team activity by providing visibility on how each member of the team is trying to improve their skills. If peers, and not just line managers, can see what everyone is trying to achieve, they can help each other stay on track and turn new knowledge into a powerful habit.

  • Set Up a Peer-to-Peer Learning Programme: Studies suggest that more than 50% of employees turn to their peers first when they want to learn a new skill. Yet, this study by McKinsey revealed that less than half of organisations have implemented any kind of formal peer-to-peer learning. Formal peer-to-peer learning programs can take many forms. You could pair participants in one-to-one sessions, create cohorts working together on real work problems over a few months, or involve weekly sessions in which individuals share the latest knowledge with their peers. Whichever route you go, I’m certain peer-to-peer learning will build a collective commitment to mastering new skills.

  • Build a Safe Environment to Give Regular Feedback: Peer learning only works when participants feel safe enough to share their thoughts, experiences, questions, and accept constructive feedback. They also need to feel comfortable giving honest feedback. This means setting clear rules that each team has input on. These rules will vary depending on company culture and natural preferences amongst other things, but some ‘rules’ you may want to consider, are: everything shared is confidential to the peer group aka what’s shared in the team stays in the team; feedback should be perceived as a positive gesture from peers; active listening needs to be used at all times; participants should never be mocked or embarrassed for expressing themselves in front of their peers.

  • Ensure People Understand the Behavioural Preferences of Their Colleagues so Feedback Reinforces Rather than Undermines: Neuroscientists have proven that our brains are automatically sensing whether an interaction will bring a ‘threat or a reward’. Therefore, the first thing we say (and the way we say it) triggers a binary response in the brain that either enhances our ability to communicate, make decisions, try new things or does the reverse, retards our ability to think, speak and act. Perhaps more importantly it also either makes us happy or unhappy, feeling like we are among friends or not with people who represent a threat. So, it’s very important if you want to develop effective peer reinforcement that everyone in the team understands the natural behavioural and communications preferences of their colleagues. For example, feedback delivered in a light-hearted way by one team member may be perceived as an attempt to ridicule by another.

  • Encourage Peers to Test Each other on New Skills: Once you have built a safe environment where peers have full visibility on each other’s goals, encourage teams to book time in to test each other on new skills they have learnt to reinforce the new knowledge. If practice makes perfect, then practicing as a team can make a perfect team.

With up-skilling and re-skilling so high on the business agenda as a result of the pandemic, peer reinforcement could significantly accelerate the pace at which your people develop. These are just five of the many ways peers can play a huge role in each other’s learning and development. I’d love to hear any other ideas you have in the comments.

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