Using Peer Support To Improve Your Skills

As a group, corporate managers are an isolated bunch. Whereas employees know and support each other, managers tend to keep problems to themselves.

If nothing else, the events of Sept. 11 have taught us that isolation doesn’t work. Since then, companies have watched employees pull together and accomplish tasks with new dedication and teamwork. It seems that the bonds developed from sharing a common feeling create cohesiveness, and managers shouldn’t be left out.

Management isolation raises another issue. Despite decades of artificially grouping managers together for training programs, most organizations haven’t found good ways to develop their skills, judgment and effectiveness. What if companies could end managers’ isolation and improve their skills as well?

Managers have a wealth of knowledge and experience, and research shows that peer interaction is one of the best learning methods. About two years ago, The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (“The Hutch”), an academic research institution with 2,500 employees in Seattle, decided to investigate whether peer support could help improve management skills. As it turns out, this program not only succeeded, but also provided a forum for managers to feel safe revealing their concerns and receiving advice from similar leaders.

The Hutch has many small business units, all with a strong culture of consensus-building and participatory decision-making. Employees work hard, but like many growing organizations, there are plenty of communication, decision-making and political challenges.

One problem when creating a peer-support forum for managers to talk candidly and learn from each other is that it can be threatening or viewed as too touchy-feely and a waste of time. The Hutch addressed this natural resistance by personally inviting a select group of managers chosen for specific reasons. They were senior executives from different functions but similar levels, with jobs that required them to connect with diverse employee groups.

The Hutch’s director of organizational development selected and recruited the eight initial participants. Everyone who was asked to join this so-called Management Learning Group accepted. They agreed that after six months they would discuss the group’s benefits and whether to continue.

As an external consultant, I facilitated the group. An external facilitator fosters a safer environment for managers to say what’s on their minds without worrying about its impact on their effectiveness in the organization. And that was the purpose of each meeting — asking: “What’s on your mind?” and providing a safe, confidential environment to talk about current problems. We wanted to create a support network, with the added benefit of improving the effectiveness of cross-functional teams and reducing the age-old “us vs. them” functional mentality.

The monthly agenda was based on the group’s interest. At first, the meetings were part structured workshops and topic-focused discussions and part participant-generated discussions of immediate concerns. Some months we read a management article or watched a film and discussed it. We talked about how to do more with less, how to listen to and analyze problems and how to motivate employees. I soon learned, however, that we might never get to the agenda I prepared.

As the meetings progressed, the structured time diminished and the “what’s on your mind?” time increased. People arrived with topics and problems for discussion. How do you manage people who are in different physical locations? How many chances do you give a problem employee? How do you fire someone? What are the difficulties of promoting one member of a team over the others? How do you stay organized in chaos? How can you maintain a sense of perspective in the midst of challenge?

After six months, the vote was unanimous — everyone wanted to continue. After a year we took another vote, with the same result. When one group member left after 18 months, the others voted to continue, but felt the group needed new perspectives. We invited the organizational-development director to select four new members. In the spirit of learning from every experience, the discussion of how to welcome new members into our established group led to talking about how each participant integrates new employees into their work groups.

Participants are able to evaluate effectiveness with their feet. A second group has formed and in both, unless a member has left The Hutch, all continue to attend. A couple of members have taken short “leaves” when their work became too consuming. Others like attending during high-stress periods. One commented, “I need this time for my own development, especially when work is chaotic.”

Our success as a management-training tool is anecdotal. Without sharing the content of their discussions, group members have said they value the program and believe it should continue. When asked how they benefit, participants provided these comments:

  • “It’s a safe environment to talk and think things through. I have a group of peers who are a sounding board with lots of perspectives. People say what they really think.”
  • “We focus on underlying management issues. I learn how other people do things that I can use. We don’t get caught up in shoptalk. We discuss pure management and political issues.”
  • “Organizations don’t train people to become managers. I have holes in my management skills. I’ve learned a lot of lessons here.”
  • “I often feel like I must be the only one who has had an experience. This group has helped me see that others have the same issues and challenges.”
  • “It’s easier to do business and be on teams with other group members. I know people in a different way and feel more comfortable.”

Even if your environment doesn’t seem receptive to such groups, the benefits of forming them may outweigh the difficulties in getting started. Begin small and build as managers feel more comfortable sharing. Consider these suggestions:

  • Choose participants at the same level but from different functions, with a mix of skill strengths and experiences.
  • Extend invitations to participate in person or by phone. The more senior the person asking, the more attractive and important the perception of the program.
  • Choose an external organizational-development consultant, rather than an internal trainer, to create a safe environment. Watch group process. Spend time initially and continuously making people feel comfortable.
  • Ask for an initial commitment of six months and evaluate the program every six months thereafter. Continually ask, “What’s going well?” and “How can this program be more effective?” Brainstorm a list of topics and design structured mini-presentations and discussions.

A discussion group can help managers get connected by providing a way for them to discuss real problems in real time. In difficult times, it’s critical to give them a place to air private concerns and consider the impact of current events on staff.

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