Critical friendship pointer

I picked up a tweet yesterday via Paul Chippendale from an HBR blog called “You Are (Probably) Wrong About You” by Heidi Grant Halvorson. This seems to me a useful tying together of several important things: (e-)portfolios, reflection, critical friendship, and how to run P2P organisations. She writes:

Who knows you best? Well, the research suggests that they do — other people’s assessment of your personality predicts your behavior, on average, better than your assessment does.
[...]
In his fascinating book Strangers to Ourselves, psychologist Timothy Wilson summarizes decades of research [...] showing us just how much of what we do during every moment of every day [...] is happening below our conscious awareness. Some of it we can notice if we engage in a little self-reflection, but much of it we simply cannot — it’s not directly accessible to us at all.

This might remind us first of the perennial problem of e-portfolios and reflection. People tend to reflect only in their own way in their own time, and this is not necessarily helpful for their personal development. It is not easy for practitioners to persuade people to use e-portfolio tools to reflect in a fruitful way. And when it comes to putting together a presentation of one’s abilities and qualities using an e-portfolio tool, the result is therefore not always realistic.

Often what is more effective is a personal one-to-one approach, where the person in the helping role might be called a mentor, a coach, a personal tutor, or something else. But here we run into the problem of the moment: resources. In many related fields, resource is being taken away from personal contact, with learners left to fend for themselves, given only a website to browse.

If only … we could create an effective peer-to-peer mentoring service. This approach has certainly been explored in many places, not least in Bolton, but I do not have personal experience of this, nor do I currently know of authoritative reviews of what is seen as genuinely effective. One might expect pitfalls of schemes under that name to include a formulaic approach; a lack of genuine insight into the “mentee”; and a reliance on older-to-younger mentoring, rather than a more strictly peer-to-peer approach. In Bolton it would appear to be still a minority practice, and the support is clearly given by more advanced to less advanced students. In this kind of setting, what is the chance of a peer mentor helping to correct someone’s misconceptions about their own abilities?

The term “critical friend” seems to me to address some of these potential deficiencies with peer mentors. If the people in question really are friends, if they know each other well and trust each other, surely there is more of a possibility of bringing up and challenging personal misconceptions, given the mutual desire and a supportive culture. The Wikipedia article provides helpful background. There are many other useful sources of ideas about this idea, also known as “critical colleague”, “critical companion” or “learning partner”, all pointing in the same general direction. The idea has taken root, even if it is not yet a well-known commonplace.

The critical friend concept is certainly inspiring, but how many people have colleagues who are both willing and well-positioned to act in this role? In my experience, friends seldom see the range of professional behaviour that one would want constructive critique of, and colleagues seem rather more able to offer positive suggestions in some areas than in others. The challenge seems partly in bringing such practice into the mainstream, where it does not seem odd, or too upsetting to a culture too weak for anything more strenuous than laissez-faire.

What I believe we need is more practiced and reported experimentation along the lines of benefiting from what colleagues are prepared naturally to do, not expecting everyone to have counselling skills, or a sufficient rapport with each other to be the person … well … that we would like them to be! And in any case there are potential problems with small closed groups of people, whether pairs or slightly larger, all commenting on each other’s performance. It could easily lead to a kind of “groupthink”.

My guess is that there is a robust peer-to-peer solution waiting to be more widely acknowledged, tested, and incorporated into work cultures. I have provisionally thought of it as “follower guidance“, but I will save writing more on that to later, and hope that people may comment in the meantime on how would you address the challenges of people mis-assessing their own abilities and qualities. Really, we need to have a culture that promotes good self-knowledge, not only to help personal and professional development, but also to serve as the bedrock of an effective P2P culture.

p.s. I have now written more on the follower guidance idea.