3 brain benefits of working with peers

by | Oct 14, 2013 | Blog | 0 comments

“Trust me; I’m cynical,” the leader told me shortly after we met in person.

“Why do people like working with their peers so much? It seems like all I ever hear are complaints about co-workers, about bosses, about you name it.”

Yes, we’re prone to smell the manure—and often comment on it—before we see the pony.

Our brains are designed to detect danger faster than rewards.  We run from danger and walk toward rewards, as David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group explains.

We’re poised to run all the time in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. With potential dangers lurking everywhere, we’re on high alert.

Yet—at least in concept if not always practice—working with our peers is an advantage, not a punishment.

When I started writing the chapter, “Change Through Smart-Mob Organizing: Using Peer-by-Peer Practices to Transform Organizations” for the The Change Champion’s Field Guide: Strategies and Tools for Leading Change in Your Organization (Wiley 2013),  I didn’t appreciate the extent to which neuroscience supports the benefits of peer practices.

Through experience, I knew that involving peers was a practical, effective way to get commitment, action and better results.

Now after reading Your Brain at Work and Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders by Srinivasan Pillay MD and a number of articles, I understand the science behind peer collaboration that makes it so valuable.

(My cynical client and others will say that I’m showing confirmation bias and maybe I am. However, science supports peer practices.)

For example, tapping into the wisdom of our peers works well because the act:

  • Appeals to our strong social needs as humans. If Maslow were creating his hierarchy of needs today based on what we now know about the brain, David Rock says Maslow probably would have included social contact as well as air, sleep and food in physiological needs, which is at the base of the triangle.
  • Fosters positive, reward-based interactions that outweigh some of the challenges. As the recent Connect Consulting survey on peer practices showed, people say they value the high-quality ideas, information and insights they quickly get from their peers in a low-risk setting. Yes, it can be annoying to deal with co-workers who take more than they give or who don’t respect time or physical boundaries. However, survey respondents see that more as a training issue than an inherent weakness of working with their peers.
  • Supports solutions over problems. When you work with others—especially those with complementary skills—you can gravitate toward finding a solution rather than rehashing a problem. Granted, you and your colleagues may need a nudge to stop whining and leave “pity city” for greener pastures. But when the brain shifts its attention, you become more open to possibilities. As a result, you’re more creative and innovative.

If you and other leaders focus on solutions rather than problems, you will create a community where people can help each other deal with fear and even better, calm one another, according to Srinivasan Pillay. Optimism starts to replace fear in the brain.

When people are optimistic, they’re more apt to stay in a positive state, which improves their ability to learn. This provides for a number of benefits, including includes listening more attentively, retaining more information both for short and long-term memory and being able to retrieve it.

As the cynical leader and I talked, I realized that it might take her awhile to find the pony in the pile of manure. She’s used to encouraging and rewarding independence over interdependence. However, being in a segment of the financial services industry she understands the value of leverage.

Leveraging people can be just as powerful as leveraging money. You’re able to tap into multiple brains to get a higher return on knowledge that you can turn into action and results.

In the workplace, interdependence rules!

To what extent are you encouraging interdependence?

P.S. Join me on Thursday, Oct. 24 at 11 am PT (2 pm ET) for the free webinar  Be FEARLESS: 8 Ways to Unleash Peer Power and Energize Performance. You’ll hear about the peer-to-peer survey results as well as learn how to power up your peer-to-peer practices.


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