5 Steps to Help You Learn Strategically From Your Best Colleagues

This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

Ever find yourself watching a brilliant peer in action — delivering a flawless presentation, executing a high-stakes project, building a relationship with a prickly colleague — and wondering, How do they do that?

Don’t just watch and wonder — find out using a strategic tactic called “vicarious learning.”

With vicarious learning, instead of observing from the sidelines in a one-way process and copying a high-performer’s behavior, you engage the person in a deliberate, two-way exchange. Then you apply what you’ve learned from them to your own situation, in your own style.

Why does it work? Christopher Myers, a Harvard Business School professor, has conducted research (see this article for more) suggesting there’s power in storytelling and collaboration. Talking about other people’s real experiences of success and failure can lead to a deeper understanding — for both the learner (who ultimately improves a skill) and the other person (who in talking through and teaching can see the issue from a new perspective).

Here are tips to make the process work for you:

1. Observe the actions and words of a colleague you respect, and decide how you’ll approach them.

You could start by selecting a particularly high-performing colleague, then identify their strongest skill you’d like to learn. Or, you could start with a skill you want to build, then identify a person who seems to have mastered it. Either way, seek opportunities to watch that person in action.

For example, imagine that your peer Eduardo excels at giving feedback. Maybe you notice him talking with a colleague in the hallway, hear his encouraging tone of voice, and see the other person nodding. Or maybe you watch him tactfully critique your boss’s presentation in a department meeting. Think about it: How does Eduardo start a sentence when he’s about to give feedback? What words does he choose for the feedback? Does he use specific examples or make sweeping statements? How do listeners respond? Learning by observing is an exercise in detail.

With this initial understanding, approach the person at a time you know they won’t be rushed or busy, and explain what you’ve seen and your interest in learning more about their skill. You might say something like: “Eduardo, I really admire how you give feedback — you always seem to have people nodding along, even when you’re being critical. I’d really like to improve at giving feedback, and I wonder if you’d have time for a few questions. Could I buy you coffee to talk more about it?”

Chances are, the person will feel flattered and be willing to help.

2. Write down specific questions for the person about their approach, then ask them in your meeting.

This is your chance to hear the person’s stories of trial, error, and success — and understand their thought process around the skill. You could ask about:

  • How the person learned and/or practices the skill.
  • Particular instances where they failed or made a mistake, and the most important lessons learned. (Even experts were once bumbling beginners.)
  • Particular instances when they succeeded in the skill, and how.
  • The person’s thought process, from beginning to end, when using the skill.
  • How the person varies their approach to using the skill depending on the situation.

Your conversation will be more collaborative — and likely more helpful — if you tie some of your questions to your observations of the person’s performance, as well as your own experiences and challenges. For example, if you’re asking Eduardo about his experiences giving feedback, you might say, “You seem to use the phrase, ‘I notice that,’ quite a bit — whether you’re praising someone or offering critical feedback. What’s the thinking behind that?” Or, “Sometimes I worry that the feedback I give will make someone angry. Has that ever happened to you? If so, what did you do to turn the situation around?”

In some cases, you may find that the person hasn’t fully examined how they do something so well — some actions may feel natural and unconscious, even though they wouldn’t be for you. Your detailed questions could even help them rethink assumptions, examine and refine their approach, and possibly perform even better in the future.

Also, be sure to show appreciation for the person’s time and input. Make it clear that you intend to put the advice into action, and ask them if they’re willing to follow up later. For example, “Eduardo, thank you so much for your time. I’m going to try some of the tips you mentioned today. Would you be willing to talk later about how it goes and give me some feedback?”

3. Try just one or two adjustments or new behaviors to start.

Breaking complex, challenging tasks into little bits can make them feel more doable — and more realistic to fit into a hectic workday. Think about what you learned in your conversation with your colleague (see No. 2). What one or two actions would you like to try for yourself?

For example, say Eduardo told you that he pays close attention to his tone of voice and body language to help a sensitive colleague feel more comfortable receiving feedback. Perhaps you make a plan to ask yourself every time before giving feedback, “Am I using open body language?” and run through a mental checklist — uncross your arms, face the person, take a couple of deep breaths to relax — before proceeding in a calm tone of voice.

Whatever your personal plan, practice it several times and in a variety of situations to see how it goes.

4. Seek feedback on your performance from your peer mentor and others — and keep practicing.

Even if it’s slow going, don’t stop trying. Ask your peer mentor to check in with you to help hold you accountable for improving. And talk with your peer to reflect on your experiences so far and hear their feedback. If the skill you’re working on is observable, you could ask if they’re willing to watch you in action and provide commentary later. Or, you could ask them to role-play with you or watch you practice and provide suggestions for alternative ways to get your point across and hone your technique.

As you continue to practice and improve, you may also want to seek additional sources for input, including your manager or other colleagues.

5. Look for opportunities to collaborate with your peer mentor.

Myers’ research suggests that vicarious learning can be particularly powerful if it includes several rounds of back-and-forth over time. If you’re able to seek out common projects with your colleague, you’ll have the chance to talk about real-time shared experiences and continue observing and learning from them.