The importance of peer leadership. Who’s in charge?

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When looking at a team or business which operates efficiently, continually makes great decisions and has fun doing it on all levels there’s usually a large presence of peer level leadership.

Peer leadership is when individuals at all levels are empowered with the ability to change the standard operating procedures around them through influencing and evangelizing ideas, rather than through managerial direction. Just like with any learning process, this form of peer / self directed leadership has the potential to obtain more immediate buy in, but also has the ability to distract from the team.

Another advantage to the peer leadership model is that issues which contributors know about but won’t bring up to their managers are more likely to be addressed. Typically these types of issues contribute heavily to a company’s turnover rate. A few examples would be process optimization, as well as discipline standardization and safety measures / practices. In an organization with little peer or contributor leadership these examples could be seen as organizational or management issues, even if management was not fully aware of them.

The science behind peer leadership

There are several aspects which are involved with leadership in general. This section will go into a few, and talk about the science behind successful peer leadership.

Individual investment

Those who contribute the most buy in the most.  Its been show that the concept of ownership and collaboration lead towards lower turnover rates and higher employee moral as can be seen in this article by Scott Thompson on “The Most Effective Techniques to Encourage Team Members to Contribute to a Project”.

So why does individual investment matter?  There is a difference between the motivation to make other’s ideas successful and our own ideas successful.  The following article on the impact of motivation, written by Richard E. Clark, “Fostering the Work Motivation of Individuals and Teams” ,which helps define how motivation effects us and how it is destroyed.

As stated above, there is a difference between the motivation which comes from making other’s ideas successful and our own. Taylor and Francis Online has an article available, titled “Employee participation in decision making …” which helps explain the psychological impact of ownership in the workplace.

Cross discipline team building

One of the biggest benefits and issues with modern business is that more and more work can be done remotely without much collaboration.  The advantage here is that individuals can accomplish more without as much overhead.  The problem which arises is that a sense of tribalism can develop in the workplace, or the us vs. them mentality.  Although a peer leadership model can develop within the “Tribe”, expanding the impact to cross discipline agendas will help eliminate tribalism, and increase the team member’s cross domain knowledge.  This in turn helps with decision making, as it results in decisions being made from a “what’s best for my tribe and other tribes” mentality.  This mentality can eventually translate into a larger tribe identity.  NewWorkplace.com has an article “How about more tribes and less tribalism?” which dives into the psychology of tribes in the workplace.

Another article, by Ekaterina Walter, which I found very interesting on this topic dives into how siloed discipline environments can impact to the product(s) being delivered. titled “The Missing Ingredient of Modern Marketing”.  The reason I bring this up is that not only can a shared tribe bring about better cross discipline collaboration, but it can improve the quality and decision making around your products.

Engagement

An aspect of humanity which should never be dismissed is people’s desire to mean something.  By being a leader, and helping drive change to both culture and products, contributors become personally involved in something more than themselves.  This buy-in produces more engaged employees, as they start identifying what is produced as being a part of them, and more discipline throughout an organization.

Cultureuniversity.com published an article “The Four Roots of Engagement”, which discusses the four aspects, and reasons behind those aspects, as to how employee engagement is generated.

The organic/structured hybrid

There is no hard and fast rule which says a organization can either be structured or operate organically. Often times the companies that thrive have some type of hybrid which utilizes aspects of both. The ability to allow some structure with an organic component can most accessibly be seen with franchises such as McDonald’s and Burger King, in the relationship of the franchise and franchisee. These franchises have a structured approach to marketing, a majority of menu items and the overall look to the operation. What’s fascinating about these franchises is that they allow the individual franchisees to determine if and when to implement optional aspects of the franchise, such as what type of soda is to be offered, participation in promotions, and the tactical operation of the stores. From this aspect the franchise and franchisees become peers in some respects.

Conclusions

Peer leadership helps drive buy-in, engagement and team building, and can generate more meaningful innovation with those performing the tasks driving cost reducing measures.  Companies which exceed expectations continually tend to have some level of peer leadership built into their cultures.  Companies like Costco, Microsoft, Google and many others can be looked at to identify some different approaches to peer leadership.

Peer leadership is also becoming more applicable given our continual evolution of individual and group psychology. Matching up the psychology of the group and individual behavior around a peer leadership therefore could lead to keeping more qualified talent, as individuals are more bought into what they work on.

While this can be very useful, the pure organic form of peer leadership wont work for everyone.  Both structure and cultural factors must be built to support it.

To answer the initial question in the title “Who’s in charge”, the answer is simple.  In a peer oriented system, the individuals take ownership of leadership to the scope the structure allows them to.  Existing company, division and team leadership members start focusing on how to increase the ability for contributors to lead, and how to help educate and evangelize concepts, problems and general direction for the contributor leadership to pick up.

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