Learning from Peer Learning Groups

I’m a huge fan of peer learning groups. High-functioning peer groups, often called “Master Mind Groups” or roundtables foster a type of learning that can trump a google search or book club recommendation, any day.

In a peer learning group, a member might share an issue about an employee who keeps insisting that they need a raise (and expressing quite a bit of frustration and anger). The member who is sharing this issue is this employee’s manager, and confides in the roundtable that they actually don’t know whether or not they do need a raise, and also shares that they’re having trouble figuring out how to handle the situation, and what to say.

Peer Groups Ask Probing Open-Ended Questions

The peer group listens, and asks probing, open-ended questions: “Why do you think they feel this way?” or “How would other developers on the team feel about their performance or comp?” or “How have you handled this in the past?” Note that the questions are not fake advice hidden in a question: “Have you tried just talking to them?” (this is a bad question for a peer learning group for other reasons we’ll get to in a second).

Peer Groups Trust Each Other

Another high-functioning feature of a peer group is a level of trust that comes with time and effort. Because the group is supportive and made up of peers, there is no need for any one member to be prove that they have all the answers. They’re here to learn too, and by sharing an issue, even if they have experienced that exact same issue, they’re going to learn more from their peers about how they think and handle issues like these. The group also agrees to confidentiality, which helps deepen the trust. When a group knows that no one member will share anything said in the peer learning group, members can get to the true issues at hand, enabling real self-introspection and learning.

Gestalt Language = Experience Sharing

A good peer group doesn’t give advice. I know it seems counter-intuitive: here they are, with loads of advice to be given and shared, but the key difference in a high-performing group is instead of giving advice, they share their own experiences. This type of language is called Gestalt Language Protocol.

So, in our hypothetical example, one of the other members of the group might share this experience:

“When we implemented a career leveling chart (that I’d be happy to share a generic version with the group, but not our specific special secret one), many developers suddenly realized what they had to do to get a raise — it became very clear that performance towards the company’s goals (not just whoever asked loudest) was the way to get a raise, we just wrote it out in clear terms. That helped tremendously.”

Another member of the group might share a completely different experience:

“Your issue reminds me for some reason of this one time we had a developer who was always complaining about something, super negative, but we all knew they were an amazing developer, and could kick out tons of code and features. When they quit, we were scared the team wouldn’t be able to perform at all, but guess what — the team suddenly was even more effective and more productive without this negativity, it was like a void was lifted to allow the junior developers to rise up to fill the gaping void left by such a megalomaniac developer. Now, we don’t tolerate negativity and quickly address it via leading by example through our values of positivity and craftsmanship.”

Note that no advice is given in these two experience shares, and two totally different stories were shared, but the experiences may shape a response (or solution) by the member experiencing the issue, and that response may be something entirely different but based on the experiences shared.

One of the interesting aspects of sharing experience in a high trust group is what it implies. When you give advice to someone, you are indicating “You don’t have the answer, I don’t trust that you can figure it out, so I will give it to you.” When you share your own experiences, you are indicating: “You ultimately are the best person to figure out the right answer, and I trust you, so I will share how I think to give you more information to help you.”


After the experience shares, the member experiencing the issue then says: “I’m going to do X and Y by the next peer learning group meeting to solve this issue” — the group can hold them accountable by simply asking at the next meeting: “Well, how’d it go?” or in high-functioning groups, just by being there for the next one. The group by its own high-functioning accountable nature to learning from each other will not tolerate a member continuing to share the same issue or problem. When there’s high accountability, it doesn’t even have to be said — a member might think: “I better do what I said I would do because I don’t want to have to share the same issue next time with my peer learning group, I want to learn more and get better.”

Let Me Google That For You

While there are millions of results (at the time of writing) via search for “employee needs a raise” and “what to say to an employee needing raise”, and countless books on performance reviews, negotiation, and salary/comp/benefits — the probing questions and deep experience shares from a high-functioning, high-trust group of peers who will hold each other accountable enable a type of learning that is truly unparalleled.

Recovering CEO. Superfan of @bignerdranch. Programmer, entrepreneur, and an avid 2-wheeled vehicle fan.

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