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Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams

“Organisations learn only through individuals who learn.”  Peter Senge, MIT

Growing an organisation means that people must grow as well.

The need for ongoing learning is greater now than at any other time in history. With the immense rate of change in today’s business landscape, the shelf life of skills is decreasing.  Putting pressure on employees to learn frequently. 

Over 20 years, organisations that have made it to Fortune Magazine’s Best Companies to Work For list have consistently stood apart for their efforts to help employees reach their full potential.  Back in 1998, the average company on the list offered employees approximately 35 hours per year of training and development.  That number has grown to more than 58 hours for hourly employees, and 65 hours for salaried—a 76% increase since the first Fortune list.

One of the benefits of psychological safety is that it creates an environment where people are willing to learn.    We are more likely to adapt to change in a culture where learning from mistakes is rewarded and indeed, celebrated.  

Otherwise, people are more likely to fall into “learning anxiety” where they become defensive if things don’t go as well as they expected.  

In fact, research has found that fear inhibits learning.  Our brains perform poorly when we are bombarded with flight-or-fight chemicals.  Fear diverts resources to the parts of the brain that manage working memory and processing new information.  Impairing our analytical thinking, creative insight and problem solving.

This is detrimental to transforming an organisation because mistakes are seen as embarrassing rather than an opportunity to learn and improve.   People are more concerned about protecting their own self-interests than finding solutions.  They put limits on what’s possible and their own capabilities. Leaders that aren’t growing become siloed in their thoughts and actions.  It becomes obvious that they’re not up to the task of growing their team, let alone the organisation.  

We can’t learn if we don’t feel safe.  Psychological safety enables people to go outside of their comfort zone and learn new things. It also encourages people to engage in learning behaviours such as sharing information, asking for help or experimenting.  Learning supports people in reaching their full potential and feeling that the organisation cares about them.  

Yet, there is one catch.

Few people actively seek out and enjoy learning.  It is believed that up to 90% of employees will not improve their skills unless they have to as part of their job requirement.  Some employees actively resist continuous learning or rely on their manager to determine the skills they require on their career path.

Learning Forward Creates Psychological safety

As a leader, you want to take your direct reports on a journey where you are all learning together.  Learning is safe and protective.  You want to learn forward.  Not only does that increase safety, but it also improves people’s confidence and competencies.  It's how you transition your team into high performance.

Learning forward as a team enables employees to expand their abilities.  It creates a wonderful virtuous cycle where employees learn, try something new and receive positive results.  Boosting motivation and confidence to continue.  

It reverses the negative impact of a vicious cycle where people feel uncertain and fearful, fail to get results and their confidence drops.  So they refuse to learn or try anything new.

There are four practices to promote learning behavior in work teams that improves psychological safety at the same time.  They include:

1. Embracing errors – How you deal with wins and losses in your team will dictate how safe people feel to learn.  Embrace errors as learning opportunities so that new tactics and best practices are quickly developed to improve.  Understand that projects or concepts fail, not people. Use a reflective practise that creates a routine for asking curious questions about what worked and what didn’t.  Make it safe for people to ask questions.

2. Focus on growing people - Engage with people through their individual career paths.  Be willing to help employees understand their strengths and weaknesses.  Encourage group learning - get employees to share their expertise - both work and non-work.  It could be sharing their volunteer experience or things they have learned at a training course.  Ensure you also share what you know best.

3. Promote learning opportunities - Employees will learn more, if it is easy to do so or required in their daily work activities. Advocate access to on-demand online learning, so employees can learn whenever and wherever they want.  Regularly inform employees of training and development opportunities in the organisation.  Ensure there is training available to all - not just “high potentials.”  

4. Employee led, not manager led personal development - Help employees transition from the mindset that managers must lead their personal development.  Instead, encourage employees to discover what interests them and what they wish to learn.  Make sure they are empowered to make their own learning and career choices.  It is not up to you.

At Spotify, they believe in putting employees in control of their own careers. This means shifting people to a growth mindset, which has been a game changer in managing talent. It all starts with a focus on autonomous personal development and getting employees to think about “What skills do you want?” 

5. Be self aware - Underpinning a learning forward culture is a leader who embraces the concept of becoming a lifelong learner.  This requires understanding that to be the best leader requires constantly being in a state of growth and development.  You are never done.   Regularly read books, attend conferences and talk with people in your industry.  

Be curious, tolerant of mistakes and aware of your own biases and limitations.  Understand that improving your abilities isn’t only about what you learn.  It’s also about knowing who you are and being true to your values and vision.  It’s balancing both external learning and the internal task of looking within. Or as Terry Neil said “Change is a door that can only be opened from the inside.”  

Furthermore, having the courage to admit mistakes and weaknesses will encourage others to do the same. 

Leaders who improve learning behaviors for their team, ensure that they increase psychological safety, connection and a shared future.  Uniting team members together to create productive momentum.  You can read more about this in the book, TRUSTED TO THRIVE: How leaders create connected and accountable teams.