It isn’t hard to recall just how vulnerable we feel when we are in a learning mode in the workplace. We worry about making a mistake that costs our organization money or good will. We are concerned that we may look incompetent in front of our boss or our peers. We feel the pressure of living up to our expectations for ourselves – to be expert and skilled in our work. What you feel in these moments of risk is exactly what your employees feel when they are developing knowledge and skill.
Learning generates a range of emotions: excitement, curiosity, and anticipation among them, but also trepidation, discomfort, and avoidance. Leaders who want to support learning in the workplace need to recognize their employee’s emotional reaction to learning; it isn’t just business as usual regardless of how ubiquitous learning may be in rapidly changing roles and organizations. Because learning often engenders a degree of vulnerability, leaders need to intentionally make space for learning – to cultivate what researchers have termed an environment of psychological safety.
Psychological safety is often spoken about as a given or something easily assured. It is not. The elements of psychological safety must be deliberately cultivated consistently over time. In efforts to support direct reports’ ongoing learning and development, leaders need to create psychological safety as a foundation.
“Psychological safety is broadly defined as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. More specifically, when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. They know they can ask questions when they are unsure about something. They tend to trust and respect their colleagues.” ~ Amy Edmondson (in The Fearless Organization, p xvi)
If employees are to knowingly put themselves in a vulnerable state of learning, they need some assurances that their questions will be cheerfully answered, that their mistakes will be tolerated and gently corrected, and that their first attempts will be supported and constructively critiqued.
The benefits of psychological safety are well-documented. In addition to positive impacts on performance, teamwork, employee engagement, stress levels, inclusion, and effective leader behavior, psychological safety research has found implications for learning. Psychological safety leads to effectively learning from failures, more sharing of knowledge among colleagues, better communication across barriers, and favorable conditions for creativity and innovation.
How to cultivate psychological safety
Cultivating any kind of environment isn’t a simple task that can be achieved through quick actions. Here are some of the measures you can take to create psychological safety and thereby strengthen your team’s willingness and ability to enter a learning mode.
Build team cohesion and interdependence. Psychological safety is based in trust, and that comes from knowing one another and seeing how colleagues interact. Working on joint projects and common goals can be an important element of building the interpersonal relationships necessary for psychological safety. Consider this when you assign tasks in your team, and encourage collaboration and mutual support.
Normalize learning. Anticipate learning opportunities that are generated when challenges require people to stretch their skills. In these situations, lay the groundwork for learning; let your team know the support you’ll provide and ask them to be patient and help one another. Conduct after-action reviews focused on capturing learning, not finding fault. Make asking questions and speaking up routine. And give opportunity for everyone to share what they are learning.
Be sensitive to competing priorities. Organization-level goals (such as speed-to-market, productivity, sales quotas, and service levels) sometimes short-circuit learning processes primarily by not allowing for time to deepen one’s skills. People won’t risk stretching themselves to perform tasks or roles that they are just learning if doing so will be detrimental to achieving other stated goals. Be aware of what may be blocking people’s ability or inclination to engage in learning activities and remove barriers where possible.
Create safety nets for failure. Openly discuss risks of projects and coach people to mitigate them. Set employees up so they feel safe to try new skills. Ensure you and your team know what they should do if something goes wrong. Monitor activities and impacts carefully to get early warning if things are off track.
Treat mistakes and failures as learning opportunities. When mistakes inevitably happen, turn the conversation toward what can be learned from the incident. Better still, anticipate risky actions and mitigate mistakes in advance. In her most recent book, The Right Kind of Wrong, Amy Edmonson advises that in situations where failure is a real possibility, people should bring as much information to decision making as possible and scope projects to limit the impact of mistakes. “Intelligent failures” should be held up as examples of failing forward.
Ensure constructive feedback. Feedback is always tricky, but it’s hard to learn if you never know how your work turns out or how you are impacting others. Feedback doesn’t need to be an event. Leaders should create environments in which people get useful feedback in everyday interactions and reports. Encourage people to seek the feedback they need for themselves rather than have it thrust upon them.
Seek input and request alternative views. Approach your leadership role humbly, recognizing that your understanding of situations can only be enhanced by inviting others to share their perspectives. Make it normal and safe for people to share contrary points of view. Invite real debate. Genuinely thank people for their input and be transparent about how and why decisions are made.
Keep lines of communication open. Create opportunities for casual conversation as well as frequent check-ins on progress and employee needs (without scheduling meetings!). Cultivate employee curiosity by asking them open questions about their interests. Encourage contributions from everyone.
Model learning. Share your own learning journeys, including mistakes you made along the way. Let your employees know the knowledge and skills you are actively working to develop, and share your strategies and results.
When employees complain that their leaders are only paying lip-service to a commitment to support development, it is often because they don’t feel like they can take risks or ask naïve questions without fear of being negatively perceived or – worse yet – reprimanded. Telling people that it’s okay to learn isn’t going far enough – you have to show them through consistent words and actions.
If you want to learn more about psychological safety, here are some of the best resources:
- Amy Edmondson’s books, which detail her research and recommendations:
> The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth (Wiley, 2019)
> Right kind of wrong: The science of failing well (Atria Books, 2023)
- Psychological safety comes of age: Observed themes in an established literature. by Amy C. Edmondson and Derrick P. Bransby. (Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, January 2023)
- Curated resources by Amy Edmondson
- Curated resources by Tom Geraghty (weekly newsletter available)