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.

5 thoughts on “Critical friendship pointer

  1. Simon,

    Great post although given your comment about “a robust peer-to-peer solution waiting to be more widely acknowledged” I wondered if you have ever come across the work of The Centre For Self-Managed Learning?

    In essence, they create learning groups who contract to meet regularly for a set time period (e.g. a year), everyone creates and signs a personal learning contract and then, throughout the course of meetings, members update the group on their progress and discuss any difficulties encountered along the way. The group then supports and challenges them very much in the way you describe.

    There’s more info on their web-site but I think this article gives a particularly good glimpse of the realities and huge potential benefits:

    http://www.selfmanagedlearning.org/2001/05/09/my-first-learning-group-eight-years-on/

    Although the learning groups are professionally facilitated, other group members sound like they are equally important in the questioning and challenging process. Moreover, as membership is usually different to normal colleague & peer groups, it sounds like it quickly becomes a trusted environment and people are willing to discuss work issues more openly than perhaps they otherwise would. In addition, I imagine this member diversity would also make it less susceptible to your concerns around group-think.

    Individual mentoring can no-doubt be highly effective but, given the difficulties you highlight in facilitating such a network at scale, could a group P2P model like this be worth considering as an alternative?

  2. Thanks, Neil!

    I’d say the other potential problem with individual mentoring is the danger of top-imposed agenda.

    So the practice you mention looks very interesting indeed. I quote “Others felt that their defense mechanisms had been released, enabling them to receive criticism and then use it constructively.” And other similar points, as well as what you point out, all of which is just what I was getting at. I’d love to be a member of a group like that.

    So why isn’t it, in my words, “more widely acknowledged, tested, and incorporated into work cultures”? What an indictment of a work culture that people have to get out of it to be in (your words) a “trusted environment” and release “their defence mechanisms” (theirs).

    Who is prepared to go the next step, beyond pointing out good examples of practice, to analysing what the obstacles are to its promulgation?

  3. Simon

    Thanks for an interesting and pertinent post.

    I’ve been reviewing the ‘learning culture’ in my own tiny organisation. Part of this strand of thinking has been to develop my own ‘job description’. As the business owner and managing director, I haven’t had an explicit one, but we all felt it would be useful to have a critical appreciation of my role. This has led to reflections about appraisal and mentoring in this context. We do 360 appraisal, which I’ve found to be very useful. However, it doesn’t perform the same function as mentoring or critical friending, as you’ve described.

    I’ve definitely come to the view that some form of peer mentoring would be a good idea. I’ve now had some experience of Action Learning within the JISC Relationship Management Programme, as a Critical Friend, and I suspect that this may be the germ of an approach. The Critical Friend role in the Programme has got some extensive briefings from JISC CETIS (CAMEL, Action Learning, detailed role description), but it’s related to independent support to projects, including facilitating Action Learning sessions in cluster meetings, rather than mentoring individuals.

    I think it might be useful to explore the Action Learning approach, as a refinement of the Critical Friend idea. The difficulty with the more extensive peer-to-peer group approach (and formal Action Learning sets) is that they require time commitment from a group of peers, and, as has been pointed out, this type of time commitment is difficult to get. I wonder if it’s worth exploring a one-to-one Action Learning set, or very small group (2 to 4 people?), to minimise the time commitment.

    Also, in a peer-to-peer environment, I think that the ‘friend’ aspect is not as important as the ‘critical’. I’d be happy to engage in this with someone for whom I had respect, even if they were not classified as a personal friend – that would probably emerge from the relationship. The respect, confidence and confidentiality at the start would be vitally important.

    Alan

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  5. @Alan

    Many thanks, and yes, I agree with what you write here. I’d be interested in what you think of my following post, now I’ve written it! As you will see, I agree with the “2 to 4 people” approach, but see it perhaps being used in an open network rather than a closed group. But a closed group would be an interesting testing ground, and probably much easier to set up.

    And I also agree, it is not actual friendship per se that matters, it is the respect and trust that frequently goes along with real friendship.

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