Seven Steps to Powering Peer Learning in Circles

Since 2016, studies have shown that when it comes to learning, rather than searching the internet or asking their boss, over half of employees rely on their peers. In 2019 Steve Galeski writing for HBR suggested activating peer learning in L&D efforts. “When you account for the fact that humans tend to learn as they teach, peer learning offers a way to support rapid, just-in-time learning, while strengthening the existing understanding your employees have about concepts.”

Of course, opportunities for standard peer connection plummeted over the past few years. Employees grew increasingly disconnected and dispersed from one another, through necessary lockdowns followed by the rise of remote work and distributed teams.

Yet peer learning continues to prove valuable for modern teams: Contemporary Leadership Advisors’ new white paper on peer learning circles (PLCs) found that employees who reach outside their function learn skills faster, and that they feel more valued at work when they’re asked to share about their own learnings. But the researchers also lament that today, “less than half of organizations institute any kind of formal Peer Learning Program, and one in three don’t have any system in place for employees to share learnings with one another.”

Luckily, peer learning is part of the foundation upon which the platform and services were built. Read on to learn how we incorporate CLA’s seven criteria for effective peer learning.

Expert Facilitation. “In our experience, Expert Facilitation is the most important determinant of the PLC’s success.” 

CLA’s finding matches the feedback we receive regularly from our clients: time after time, participants rave about their session facilitators. Gertrude Bibi of the GenderSmart community shared: “Without the facilitator it would be just another webinar–facilitation made it personal, and I will always remember this series of conversations.”

Some circles are led by one of our dozens of Certified Circles Guides, who we’ve trained and badged to contract out to customers.

Additionally, we often train our clients’ employees to facilitate their own circles; as customers add our programs to their toolkit, more facilitators are trained each round, resulting in a growing bench of facilitative leaders inside their organizations.

What supports our facilitators in their guidance is the structured process the Circles platform and services provide.

Structured Process. “The second most common mistake  organizations  make  is  to  allow  PLC  sessions to become freeform discussions.” 

A peer learning circle is more than an unstructured small group. In addition to facilitation, circles sessions include curated agendas to help facilitators guide conversations. Agenda outlines vary, but generally consist of a check-in, discussion based on a ‘spark’, as well as a discussion/reflection time and debrief.

The result is just enough unstructured sharing space balanced within an expertly planned session, a combination that creates a safe environment for peer learning.

Psychological Safety: “The PLC space enables participants to take risks without the fear that they are being judged or evaluated while they learn.” 

Psychological safety emerged as one of the hottest workplace topics of 2022. Safe spaces are a growing employee expectation; people want to come to work as their authentic selves, and circles is a space designed to promote risk-free dialogue.

In fact, one of the top ten words participants used to describe Circles in 2022 was ‘safe,’ due in large part to facilitation, agendas, and equitably designed platform features such as random order generator, timers and hand-raises.

Not only is the experience designed with safety and inclusion in mind, but also: what happens in circles stays in circles. Each session begins with participants agreeing upon norms that include a commitment to group confidentiality. The circles safety motto is that ‘learnings leave and stories stay’.

Safe circles prove especially important as we intentionally diversify sessions.

Diversity: “PLC  groupings  should  maximize participant  diversity (e.g., gender, race), as  well as spread across the organization (e.g., function, business unit).” 

Diversification takes place during our initial sorting process. Whether circles are connecting employees across organizational departments or across companies, diversity is a proven element of excellent teams–and, research shows, it goes hand-in-hand with psychological safety. Diverse teams are only conducive to effective peer learning if they are safe; in fact, diverse teams can be less productive if they are not psychologically safe.

This obviously doesn’t make diversity or safety optional; rather, they must be prioritized together. The result of diverse sessions on a platform providing structure and facilitation is an environment primed for safe reflection and critical thinking.

Reflection and Critical Thinking: “As  part  of  the  peer consultations, participants develop and apply coaching skills (e.g., active listening, powerful inquiry, reframing) that lead to deeper discussion and greater insight.” 

Reflection exercises are recommended to help today’s isolated remote workers cope, and community reflection in Circles sessions proves even more powerful.

Agendas introduce individual reflection time first, followed by a chance to share and process reflections together. Because each participant takes a turn listening and also being heard–and interacting with each others’ reflections–members develop skills that independent reflection can’t touch. This is peer learning in action.

The right environment for safe reflection and critical thinking paves the way for real-world application.

Real-World Application: “Each PLC session comes  with  bite-sized,  curated  content  on  a topic that is highly relevant to participants and the business.”

Each session’s conversation ‘spark’ (an article, poem, video etc.) launches discussions pertaining to common challenges participants face. Inside the structured environment of a facilitated circle, groups can safely set and share action steps–especially after multiple sessions together.

This is due in large part to the human connection people experience in Circles. Participants frequently come away voicing the realization that they’re ‘not alone’. Many describe overcoming imposter syndrome after connection in circles. One executive found their cross-company peer circle to be a humbling experience, “because we shared challenges, difficulties and struggles, and everyone was honest about who they are and how they do their business.” Guards come down through genuine connection, allowing growth through real world application.

Participants bring their peer learnings from safe sessions into the real world, and as a community provide accountability for one another.

Accountability: “Leaders need to hold themselves and one another accountable to attend the sessions and arrive prepared to participate.” 

Two types of accountability ensure the most effective outcomes; the first is simply agreeing to carve out time to show up, despite full schedules and competing commitments. The best groups are the ones with high attendance–consistency helps participants build trust, and often the average value score increases with each session. Like any new habit put in place, the dividends increase over time.

A second type of accountability arises as participants bond and support each other through challenges. They become invested in each other’s growth: following up on previous sessions, celebrating successes along the way, and leaning in with curiosity and support when commitments to take action hit roadblocks.


Circles are inclusive spaces designed to help small groups connect and grow. With these seven proven principles embedded in our Circles platform and services, you’ll easily layer peer learning into programs you’re already running. Contact us to begin implementing the power of peer learning circles into your workplace today!