Leading a group of peers is arguably the hardest situation a manager can find themselves in. For whatever reason—be it slightly more experience, a higher level of maturity, or perhaps the trust of supervisors—we can sometimes find ourselves placed in charge of a group of colleagues who hold roughly the same rank and position as our own. Without a base of power to fall back on, these situations call for a unique style of leadership that we don’t often talk about. To understand how to be successful in this type of situation, we should first unpack the basics of leadership research and then dive into how effective (and ineffective) peer leadership techniques can help us be successful.
A variety of leadership research relies on a framework that defines three important inputs which contribute to the resulting impact of leadership in a given scenario – the leader, the led, and the environment.
But with peer leadership, there are not clear distinguishing factors between the leader and the led. What if two (or, often more than two) members are peers within the organization or business? How does that change the dynamic of leadership impact?
Peer leadership is not a phrase used in many organizational circles. It is big in education (simply Google “peer leadership” and 90% of the results are academic sources) and the military communities, though. Yet, it is something that transcends these two domains and in fact influences many relationships across a variety of organizational contexts.
For example, think about a shift-based business where an experienced shift manager is charged with training and on-boarding a new shift manager. Or, consider project managers responsible for different projects having to collaborate (and even sometimes compete) for project resources with each other. In academic settings, we find ample examples of peer leadership situations, from teacher assistants, resident assistants, or the dreaded course project groups. In the Army, we see company executive officers (assistant managers) who are responsible for supporting the development and performance of new platoon leaders, despite not being in a formal leadership role over them. To make matters more difficult, these executive officers often share the same rank and only hold six months to a year of experience over the platoon leaders. Clearly, peer leadership scenarios abound across all organizational and industry settings.
Regardless of the setting, however, the key is that there is no clear, formal hierarchy between members where one can leverage positional power over the other, such as rank, authority, or status. Yet, despite this shared standing between members, organizations constantly create an environment where one individual must be in charge. This forces that peer leader to often enact personal-based power or “informal leadership” over the others to achieve results ultimately focused on the good of the larger team. This is a tall order for even experienced individuals.
The thing about peer leadership, though, is that is it hard to do successfully. With no clear power hierarchy between members, it can be immensely challenging to try and influence one another. There is no ability to fall back on rank or position-based power to get your way. Those you are leading may have no professional or personal motivation to consider your perspective. And depending on how much authority the organization has given you, there may not be an ability to leverage any incentives (or disincentives) to motivate your team. Peer leadership often becomes the most challenging leadership scenario we will ever find ourselves in.
So, establishing that its hard and clearly something worth thinking about is easy. Finding ways to lead peers, though, is harder. How will I choose to gain influence with a peer in a future challenging situation? What will be effective or ineffective given the variables of the “leader,” the “led,” and the environment? What are ways I can encourage collaboration and commitment from the other person when they have no requirement to offer those to this relationship? Considering questions like these can help us enter those experiences more intentionally and, hopefully, be more effective when the time comes.
Below are some broad perspectives about peer leadership that I extrapolated from a recent conversation with a mentorship group I facilitate. Our theme for the conversation was peer leadership and how to succeed in these tough situations. Below were the key ideas shared from the group that I found insightful and believe can apply to many scenarios and organizations.
Perspectives for the “Senior” Member
While formally peers, there are often informal variables that can qualify one peer as “more senior” than the other(s), whether that is by experience or another relevant factor. The “senior” peer has a responsibility for setting the tone of the relationship – helping to make it productive, both between members, as well as for the organization at large. There are a few things the “senior” individual can do to cultivate productive peer leadership relationships:
- Focus on what is best for the whole organization – not just yourself or your small team. Commit to role modeling by being a good team player, most concerned for what is best for the overall organization.
- Approach the relationship by offering a “How can I help?” perspective. Where can you open doors or support your team best right now?
- Bring a positive attitude, energy, and optimism. You naturally set the tone – make it a productive one. This cannot be stressed enough. Those around you will embody and replicate your attitude. Don’t allow yourself to complain or gripe about the situation, it will infect your small team with negativity.
- For scenarios where one manager is taking over for another one, the outgoing member easily tends to complain and focus on all the negative aspects of the job and team. Think about the impact that has on your replacement and the team at large, and set your organization up for success.
- Be warm and welcoming. New members are nervous, sometimes scared, and watching every move you make. Welcome them and be a beacon of warmth to show the type of organization they are now a part of.
For the “Junior” Member
Those seen as the “junior” peer also can bring important things to the relationship. Particularly:
- Many situations include the junior member being the new addition to the team. With little experience or understanding of the organization, you can easily be written off early. Do what you can to show that you are here to add value to the team and to others.
- “Keep the faith” – show grace, patience, and appreciation for the peers who are supporting you, even if they have a bad attitude or are not personally investing in the relationship. Become the de facto role model in the relationship.
- But also know what right looks like and stick to your principles. Don’t compromise what you know to be true and right in an attempt to “fit in.”
For Both Members Involved
Both peers equally can contribute in other productive ways as well; the below considerations apply to both members and to situations where this is not an informal senior/junior person dynamic:
- Be the “adult,” be mature, take the high road, and be direct.
- Seek to understand the other person/people, then to be understood by them. Be willing to gracefully and humbly share your perspective to explain context.
- Maintain bridges (relationships) – don’t burn them. You never know if/when you will need them (or they need you) in the future.
- Do the work, set the example, and do your due diligence in holding up your end of the relationship (at the very least).
- Use your strengths for good. Empower others and be willing to help.
- Be intentional in investing in the relationship and in the other person – as a person…a human being. Don’t view the other(s) simply as a position or a means to an end.
On the Environment
Within a peer relationship or not, the environment always contributes to leadership in big ways. Particularly for peer relationships to thrive, they need to be supported by a broader organizational climate of normalized candor and accountability. This type of environment enables peer relationships to quickly start from a place of mutual trust and respect, to have difficult conversations productively when needed, and encourages both members to show up with the best interests of the larger group in mind. Do not underestimate the impact of environment, especially organizational climate, on peer leadership relationships (or the impact of leadership in general). Peer relationships cannot survive low standards. Organizational leaders must drive a climate where candor, accountability, mutual trust, and respect are normalized.
Being intentional in how you practice and learn from peer leadership can make you a better leader in many other circumstances. In being able to successfully navigate the complexities of influencing peers, you also improve your ability to influence those down and even up your hierarchy of leadership/management. You’ll adopt more productive approaches, defaulting to transformational approaches versus merely relegating to forcing compliance.
Without a doubt, peer leadership is among the most challenging leadership environments an individual can find themselves in. The awkwardness in stepping apart from your peers, holding individuals who you may consider friends accountability, and maintaining the standards of your organization when being lax is the path of less resistance is tough. But recognize and remember that successful peer leadership relationships across an organization makes it a more cohesive and productive unit.
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