Why peers (not managers) are key to employee growth

Published on: Jun 18, 2019

peer learning nate bear

Illustration by Nate Bear

When asked what to look for in a new job, I often tell people to focus their attention on the manager: What can you learn from them?

As it turns out, the career advice I have been dispensing all this time may be wrong. Imperative released research that sheds light on a new workplace truth. We asked a representative sample of the US workforce, “Do you learn more from their managers or from your peers?”

The results: Twenty percent said their learned more from their managers, 53 percent said they learned more from their peers, and 27 percent said they learned equally from their peers and managers. This means that 80 percent said they learn as much or more from their peers as they do from their managers.

Not only does this mean I was giving the wrong advice, it also means that our way of thinking about work and career development is upside-down.

This is yet another example of how work is changing. The issues with hierarchical organizations and command-and-control cultures have been well documented. But even with this knowledge, we continue to apply an old model to career development and learning.

Why do we learn more from our peers?

1. Psychological safety. Our managers are also responsible for our compensation and career path in most organizations, leading to higher stakes for employees. This is more likely to bring negative emotions into the learning experience. To learn, we need to take risks and be vulnerable, which is much easier with a peer.

2. Relevance of information. Most of our learning is focused on the immediate performance of our jobs. Our peers may be more likely to have the relevant knowledge and experience top-of-mind than our managers.

3. Adult learning. The top source of learning at work is experiential learning – on-the-job tasks – which has been estimated to account for 70 percent of learning. Who are we doing our day-to-day work with? Our peers.

4. Reflection. When learning new things, either by consuming information or from experience, it is much more likely to “stick” if we reflect on it. Peers provide a natural resource for reflection. What did you think of that meeting? How do we need to act on that new information? Why do you think that didn’t work? It is through this process that we begin to create new approaches and to actively test them in the real world.

5. Availability. Peers have more availability than managers. In a poll from Interact Harris poll, 52 percent of employees reported that their leaders don’t have the time to meet with them. Peer coaching allows employees to have the one-to-one interactions they crave, but are not receiving.

6. Reciprocity. We feel more comfortable asking for advice when we can return the favor. Peer learning establishes a reciprocity dynamic that is less likely to take shape in a manager-employee relationship.

7. Motivation. A study at Michigan State University found that “University students who were given a rationale for why learning is important from people similar to them… wrote more effective essays and got a significantly better final grade than students who were given the same rationale from the course instructor.” We trust our peers to understand what will actually be worth learning, as we can relate to them and their situation.

The takeaway: Invest in peer coaching

The modern workplace is built around the manager. We assume the employee experience and their development is the responsibility of the manager. When we look to improve employee development or engagement, we look to the manager as the key to success or failure.

Our new white paper Activating Peer Coaching, and the associated research, points to a need to look in another direction. If employees learn more from their peers, how can we support these learning conversations?

Peer coaching is a process through which two colleagues work together to build and refine skills, reflect on their experiences and aspirations, solve workplace problems, uncover new insights about themselves and their work, and teach one another based on their respective experiences.

Download our new white paper on peer coaching to learn why peer coaching can unleash employee potential at scale and how to deploy it in your organization.

Aaron Hurst is CEO and co-founder of Imperative, the leadership, manager, and career development platform for the Purpose Economy.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Imperative blog.