In his article about peer effects in the workplace, published in the American Economic Review, Thomas Cornelissen referenced the recently published results of a German study. Over a period of 15 years, the study engaged millions of workers in 330 different professions. It found that the success of peer learning could be attributed to social dynamics as well as to knowledge sharing.
The researchers observed that employees’ performance increased when their peers increased their own performance. This was attributed to social pressure or peer effects: when employees are around other high performers, they feel the pressure to keep up with their colleagues. As a matter of fact, they feel compelled to go further, raising the bar themselves on what the performance expectations should be.
The study also discovered that, when a top performer leaves a team, there is a surprising impact. The hypothesis was that the knowledge previously shared by the top performer would continue to have a positive influence on the remaining team members. However, this proved not to be the case. Instead, the performance level of many of the team members decreased.
As Mr. Cornelissen states, “With the top performer not around to raise the bar, the team falls back to their old habits and their lesser motivation to excel.”
This paradoxical finding leads him to three recommendations for organizations to follow:
- Take advantage of the fact that top performers help training succeed because their presence and their successes “create a social pressure that pushes others out of their comfort zone and motivates them to improve.”
- Rather than leaving peer learning to chance, draft the top performers to teach the other team members the secrets behind their successful performance.
- Also have the top performers serve as mentors to the team members who need assistance when learning a new skill.
Apparently, the human inclination to compete with each other and “keep up with the Joneses” adds to the value of peer learning groups. Nobody wants to be perceived as performing worse than others. Benchmarking to peers seems to play an important role.
Managers who participate in the Peer Learning Group Program not only share knowledge and create new knowledge, they benefit from the magnetic pull of the more capable and competent group members. In this way, peer learning groups not only increase skills and knowledge, but also build social capital in your organization and introduce a new motivational factor to boost your managers’ performance and productivity.