10 Ways We’ve Seen Peer Groups Help People Become Successful

Have you ever taken a moment to really think about what drives you every day? If you sit down and think about it, chances are your peers will be a huge factor in the equation. If we’re looking to improve our lives, expanding our peer groups can give us a renewed focus and energy.

While “social” and “online” are two words that have arguably become synonymous with a culture of instant gratification and superficial interactions, the tools are in fact there to have deep, meaningful conversations at an unprecedented scale.

Why do this though?

One of the questions we get most often at Circles is “what’s the benefit of a peer group?” So in this post we’ll list ten of our top reasons, and tell a few stories.

Below are ten reasons, in three categories:

  • Help with work

  • Build leadership and learning practices

  • Have a space for deep conversations

Help With Work

1. Hear Real Feedback.

“Sometimes you can't see yourself clearly until you see yourself through the eyes of others.” -Ellen Degeneres

The quality of the feedback we receive can be throwaway when we’re looking to the usual channels. Spouses? Bosses? Biased, all. When the focus isn’t on learning and growth, these people simply won’t have the same skin in the game. 

C.S. Lewis is known to have destroyed his first draft of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe after reading it out loud to the Inklings, a literary group comprised of the likes of Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. He was devastated by their initial reaction, but their feedback went on to play a huge part in the evolution of a children’s classic.

Then there is, of course, the pain of hearing real feedback. It can strike us to the point we forget it’s been given in order to solve a problem. C.S. Lewis pulled through, but it can be trying. Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, authors of Thanks For The Feedback, have spoken about how we react to feedback through what they call the “Google bias”:

“One isolated criticism (your colleague makes a crack about your inability to show up on time) triggers an assessment of your entire life. It’s like googling “Things that are wrong with me.” You get 1.2 million hits, with sponsored ads from your father or your ex. Suddenly it feels like you can’t do anything right.”

Internally Google “Things I’m handling well”, and you’ll probably get 4 million hits. If we’re not used to hearing real feedback though, it’s difficult to put things into perspective. So a peer group aimed at professional growth serves the double purpose of providing you the real feedback you need for growth, as well as helping you hone how you receive (and give) that feedback.

2. Make better decisions

Making decisions that have far-reaching implications can pile the pressure on the best of us. It can be exhausting going it alone. The strain often leads to bad decision making. In Leo Bottary’s “The Power of Peers", he alludes to a study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business:

“Roughly two-thirds of CEOs report feeling lonely at the top. Not only do they need to make tough decisions about their organizations day in and day out, but they often do so in a vacuum, without input or even much pushback from others.”

That’s why, for example, The Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) and The Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) forums use specific exercises to help members point out each other’s blind spots. Taking in the perspective of others allows for more informed, and better, decision making.

Circles advisor David Joerg, who is working on chess teaching software, notes that “seeing a situation from all angles is fundamental to making a better decision … you can see the results of not doing so in black and white on a game board.” Being part of a peer group that you can bounce your decisions off, before putting into effect, means that you can consider multiple perspectives. It’s very likely the challenge you’re facing now is a problem that one of your peers has already overcome in the past.

3. Clarify your Challenges

“Every clarification breeds new questions” -Arthur Bloch

If you don’t actively clarify what you’re setting out to achieve, you will only be skimming the surface. If you try to go it alone the process is guaranteed to take longer, and you simply won’t be privy to the bigger picture. What problem are you trying to solve? What itch are you trying to scratch? What are the available solutions? All of these questions can take on new meanings when viewed from the perspective of your peers.

Doug Lynch, Circles CLO, who teaches a course for Education Technology entrepreneurs, has said “the most impactful thing my course does is help people clarify their problems. 90% of solving a problem is in framing the question properly.”

Peer groups also help us clarify what’s holding us back in our challenges, helping us see that our problems are much more manageable than we had previously thought. One of the most powerful processes of a peer group looks like this: you start by sharing a challenge. You say it out loud, forcing you to think it through once. It feels distant and out of focus. Your peers ask you clarifying and probing questions before sharing their own experiences. Your challenge leaves the meeting reframed, transformed.

4. Challenge Your Goals

When we’re striving so hard to achieve our goals it can be easy to forget they may need to be reassessed. A peer group gives you a space and regular practice for doing just that. Seeing others’ achievements and successes can push us to really up our game. The same year Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile, 9 others did too.

While you are focused on the tasks at hand, your peers will find it easier to see the bigger picture as they aren’t part of your daily grind. Being personally attached and passionate about our projects is a huge plus, but it can also work against us. It can be hard to let go. See things from the perspective of a peer who left a project and went on to bigger and better things could give you the motivation you need.

Peer group members report that circles bolster their confidence. It’s revealed to them how common and normal their challenges are. Peers with no agenda but your (and their own) success are able to encourage and complement you. It is a positive push more effective than the negative accountability most organizations strive for.

5. Tactical Support, “I gotta guy for that”

Have you ever posted to social media asking for help with a specific problem? For a lot of us, that’s a daunting task. We’ve all seen it work, but we’ve also seen it fall embarrassingly flat. The problem is that sharing something with hundreds of friends makes it so easy for people to view your problem and think, “someone else will help out.” And of course, there’s the not so insignificant issue of competing with thousands of other pieces of information vying for everyone’s attention on simultaneous feeds.

Social media can act as a great way to connect people. As a means of seeking help though,  it lacks the focus of an online community that encourages real face to face communication. Stephen Downes and George Siemens have pioneered a modern theory of learning called “Connectivism”, which points towards a new way of interacting online. According to them, we exchange information more easily when we really know and trust people.

Circles use the group messaging platform Slack to connect participants and keep the conversation going in between meetings. In peer group meetings people build trust. When they post questions to Slack like, “How have you designed your options plan?” or “Does anyone know a great employment lawyer?” or “What’s the best restaurant you’ve been to in Shanghai?”  - fellow peers respond quickly, and thoughtfully. Having a trusting relationship with your peer group can set you up for new life and learning opportunities.

Leadership and Learning Practices

6. Get better at Teams

Thomas Edison gets all the credit, but the first electric light was actually created by Humphrey Davey. In 1874, Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans filed a patent for the light bulb before Edison bought it from them. Why’s this important? The real distinction between all of these people is that Edison was the first to put a real team together in earnest that could bounce ideas and build on each other’s feedback. This made it possible to make a real success out of the idea.

It can be challenging, though, to make the most out of a team situation. As Margaret Heffernan points out, “all through school we are graded as individuals, then we get to work and, surprise, everything is done in teams.” From a young age, it has been ingrained in us to work in a specific way. To get better at teamwork we have to unlearn and realign certain behaviors. 

A peer group is like a dojo where you can build essential skills for working with others. Most peer group programs explicitly train you, but each meeting in itself is a practice session. And you get constant feedback from your peers about how you are doing in the group.

Circles, for example, explicitly applies the principles that Google highlighted when it published its multi-year research into effective teams, “The Aristotle Project.”  Building psychological safety through openness, equal participation, and getting to know each other personally are key components. Peer groups build these critical skills as leaders and as teammates. EO and YPO members consistently report that their forum experiences change them as leaders at work.

7.  Improved Emotional Intelligence

“Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would rather have talked.” -Mark Twain

As Richard Nisbett, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan puts it, “the older you are, the more stable your [IQ] test score will be.” Meanwhile, neuropsychological studies of the brain highlight the plasticity of the social brain and suggest that, with adequate training, adults can become more altruistic and compassionate. Howard Gardner, who introduced the idea of emotional intelligence (EQ), said that an EQ test allows you to see a person’s “ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them.”

If IQ is a good predictor of what profession you will form a part of, your colleagues are likely to be roughly in the same ballpark. This is why working on emotional intelligence can add real value in your professional life. Peer groups expose you to many deep challenges, and give you practice in working through some of life’s biggest conundrums. Typically, they do this the way humans have passed along wisdom for thousands of years: Storytelling.

Peer group members learn from each other’s successes and failures. They are encouraged to only tell actual first-person stories, and not to tell each other what to do. As Jonathan Hefter, Lead Guide at Circles, puts it, “one of the wounds of giving advice is that it sends the message that what you chose is wrong, and that my way is the right way.”

8. Get better at learning

Learn In Circles, Not In Rows

We don’t learn from our experiences. We learn from reflecting on our experiences.” -John Dewey

Laszlo Bock, Google’s head of HR, famously described his #1 hiring criteria as “learning agility”, the ability to learn. This rings true for many leaders who are building workforces that can adapt to a world where certain skills become obsolete within a couple of years.

Much has been written about how our educational system is the product of a world that needed assembly line workers. Educational pioneers are revisiting theories of social learning, and finding new methods. The Harkness Method, for example, is used extensively at the legendary Phillips Exeter academy, and is rapidly gaining popularity. Students sit at an oval table with minimal intervention from the teacher.  It is rooted in encouraging collaboration. In Harkness’ own words, he wanted a method where students could “sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them, and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where [each student] would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.” 

Adult learners, in particular, need to connect new concepts to their existing concerns for them to stick. Many courses are too static. Working on real, personal challenges increases the chances of learning something that will stick. Plus, the recurrent structure of a peer group lends itself to the recurrence needed to remember something. When you sit in a row in front of an expert speaker, or even read a book alone, the information is likely to evaporate within days.

Personal Advisory Boards: 

A Space for Deeper Conversations

9. Support for the Biggest Challenges

Technology often distances us from real meaningful relationships. Social media confirms our biases and turns communication into a loop of uploading content and “like” validation. We essentially hide behind our avatars online. Similarly, our workplace often has us putting on a face and hiding our problems. Neither of these places offer us real support in our personal challenges.

Discussing work with friends and family has its limits too, but so many of our most important personal challenges occur where personal and professional cross. Where do you go to talk about that stuff? Joining an online peer group puts the focus on face to face interaction and goes beneath the surface, using technology to get at our most human issues.

An essential ingredient in a peer group is confidentiality. When you’re in a guided environment that allows you to be vulnerable without feeling judged, conversations go deep. Who do you talk to about stress when your boss asks you to fire someone? Should you sell your company? Keynote speaker Gordon Tredgold, for example, has spoken of the crucial role his peer advisory board played when going through a divorce while growing his business. You can bring anything you feel is holding you back to these unique sharing spaces.

10. Fun

Brett Keith, a friend of Circles CEO Dan Hoffman from the YPO forum, who built a successful private equity fund, has given us the final point here. It is one that is so crucial. When we asked him how peer groups help people become successful, he said:

“I asked myself, to what end am I spending all this time learning with my peers? I had a long list. But one reason stood out. I love doing it! Peer learning provides some of the most fun, engaging, and intense experiences I have in my life.”

And because it is engaging - you show up - and month after month, follow the stories about people you care about, people you’ve helped and who’ve helped you. You show up, learn, grow and become better at what you love to do.

If you want to find out more about joining Circles, you can read more here. Or apply to join

We learn better in Circles than in rows.

#peergroups #learning #success #education

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