From Complaints to Actions: The Peer Learning Group Experience

two female office

We complain. We all complain. And we complain often and a lot. If you could hear from your associates what sort of things they want to experience less or more in the workplace that would be supportive of their ongoing professional development, you may get an earful of complaints:

“We never have a chance to really to talk with each other about the bigger issues surrounding our work. We are under so much pressure to deliver what is needed today or tomorrow that no one feels we can afford to take time off to think. I need that time, but I cannot get it.”

“Nobody talks to each other here, but everybody talks about each other. There’s a lot of behind-the-back gossip but nobody talks to the person they have an issue with.”

“I cannot tell my boss what I am really thinking. I just have to pretend that everything is just fine.”

“I feel like we talk around and around the same issues in meetings, retreats, strategy sessions, you name it, but we never address them. And life goes on and nothing changes.”

I am sure you can easily add your own experience here. Every organization is good at this kind of talk. Some call it BMW language: bitching, moaning and whining. It is critical and riveting but also honest and constructive. It comes from people who care about their jobs, who want their ideas to be heard, validated and used.  It is voiced by people who are new to work and those who are about to retire. The criticism is aimed at bosses, supervisors, managers, CEOs, everyone in the organization. Sometimes, although less common, even at themselves.

These BMW conversations happen everywhere in all work settings and at all levels. They are almost pandemic.  So why not use the complaints for growth and development? They are the seeds of clever ideas and novel ways to fix things.  Beneath the surface of complaints and disappointments that sound like BMWs, there is potential for change and improvement that, if taken beyond the bitching and whining, can lead to major performance improvements and greater employee satisfaction.

Peer learning groups do exactly that.  When six managers get together for their peer learning ‘dojo’ to explore a specific topic (say, effective delegation), they start with a situation that may not have worked all that well or could have been handled better. This is the opportunity to express their discontent and lack of ability to handle a situation well. Sounds familiar? This is the BMW part, but it does not stop here. This is only the beginning. Then they look for reasons why it did not work, and using their group wisdom and additional learning tips on good practice, analyze how it can be done better.  They drop the BMW language and replace it with the language of options and commitment to do something what they consider viable. Structured peer interactions give them the opportunity to introduce their ideas into practice.  When they have experimented with their new approaches, they come back for another session to reflect and learn more from the peer group experience.

Peer learning groups can channel the flood of criticism and disappointment into a flow of creative thinking and actions that lead to improvements, both personal and organizational.  Leaders should consider fostering structured peer learning such as peer learning groups to honor people’s discontent and help them pursue the transformative potential of their complaints.

In reflection,

Peter Korynski

Co-Founder and Chief Program Officer                                                                                                                                                                                                             The Peer Learning Institute

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