We have all had that moment in a training session. We are sitting in a group, learning about a new initiative and a question is asked. The tone or word choice of the response is condescending, and we cringe and sink a bit lower in our chair. Or, perhaps, you are the one sharing and making yourself vulnerable, and someone’s response is less than supportive. An idea is shared with exuberance but is met with a defeating response of unacceptance or unwillingness to explore the alternative offered. I am confident each one of us could conjure up a memory like this — moments void of components which create psychological safety.
It has become increasingly important to create safe and positive company cultures for our employees. A recent brief by McKinsey and Company stated “89% of employees believe that psychological safety in the workplace is essential.” Simply put, when we feel safe, we learn and perform at a higher level.
So, what is psychological safety? And, more specifically, what does psychological safety look like in the context of learning and development, and how do we as employees, peers and leaders create it?
Training Industry defines psychological safety as “the ability to take risks, speak up, work creatively and innovatively, and generally be able to be authentic in the workplace without fear of reprisal, discrimination or retaliation.” There are five key areas we can focus on today to create psychological safety for our employees and organizations.
Communicate & Build Trust
Learning groups often have unspoken rules or norms that most people assume and follow. The first step of creating psychological safety is to openly communicate these norms by setting clear ground rules, openly encouraging participants to be open to new ideas and discussing any blind spots that might come up during the training process. Use statements like the following:
- “We aren’t in a hurry.”
- “Take time to ponder.”
- “We might come up with a new and improved process today.”
- “No question is a silly one! If you are wondering, chances are someone else is, too.”
It is essential to respect others while they are sharing. Be engaged during additional teaching on a skill, even if it is a skill in which you are already confident. When learning independently, keep a running list of questions to review with a peer or leader. Ask for hands-on learning opportunities — repeat, repeat and repeat again until you feel confident in new skills. Once the ground rules are set, agree to hold each other accountable to ensure the trust and integrity of the learning environment remain intact.
Psychological safety begins here, with trust built through holding each other accountable. A simple way to remember it is with this formula: consistency + time = trust. Everyone is responsible for effective communication and building and maintaining trust within our organizations on a daily basis.
What is a learning opportunity? Job training manuals, on-the-job training, standard operating procedures, virtual and computer-based training? Yes, those are all learning opportunities, but in truth, we are presented with opportunities to learn independently and in groups every day. We are both the instructor and the student. So, how do we capitalize on these opportunities? First, ask questions. Ask all the questions. If now is not the opportune time, write it down and come back to it. Next, use technology whenever you can. Become familiar with resources like learning management systems, YouTube, podcasts and blogs. The modern age has given us the gift of an abundance of information at our fingertips.
Actively listen to subject matter experts; learn the lingo, the regulations and the best practices that both schooling and years of industry experience have taught them. Cross-train by asking for time to observe other job functions. Gaining knowledge in these ways has an exponentially positive impact in both our current roles as well as our careers.
A final thought on this topic: Take the opportunity to challenge your own thinking. Ask questions like, “How could we approach this process a different way?” and, “What might be involved in making this initiative successful?” When we look at learning in this way, we realize that every day is full of learning opportunities and that psychological safety is an ongoing activity, not a one-time event.
Missteps — Now What?
Maintaining psychological safety is required especially in times when we or others make a misstep. Notice I didn’t say failure, mistake or blunder. No, we all make missteps both small and not so small, and these situations are incredibly valuable learning opportunities.
Reflection and curiosity are the most effective tools to lead with in these situations. When we make a misstep, it is essential to ask questions and actively listen. Consider self-reflective questions like the following:
- What led me to that decision?
- What can I do differently when faced with this situation again?
- What is the most impactful thing I learned from this situation?
- What skills do I need to revisit based on what I have learned?
Another approach is to ask group-centric questions, such as:
- Can you walk me through the thought process before the decision?
- What is the most impactful thing you learned from this situation?
- What resources are available to you if this situation arises again?
- What skills can we walk through together to help you feel confident going forward?
The key to turning missteps into safe learning opportunities is leaving the assumptions, emotions and blame at the door. It happened. We would have liked a different outcome, but here we are together. What can we learn as individuals, as leaders and as organizations from this situation?
Gratitude & Recognition
As journalist and philanthropist Germany Kent said, “Gratitude is one of the most powerful human emotions. Once expressed, it changes attitude, brightens outlook and broadens our perspective.” Those three concepts are perfectly in line with creating ongoing, psychologically safe learning environments.
How do we make room to express more gratitude and recognition in our learning environments every day? Be specific and tailor the delivery and the recognition to the person receiving it. Thank someone for asking that question, give a high-five when a new idea is shared and write a thank-you note for each participant following the training session or to another employee who took time to teach you something new. Give daily awards for participation. Recommend and highlight to others the individuals who helped you learn along the way.
The real value of recognition and gratitude is the far-reaching ripple effect beyond their initial impact in the moment. Gratitude and recognition impact not only the recipient, but also the giver, the team and the organization. Consider today who you can recognize for their impact on your work and life.
Open & Candid Feedback
Feedback — both constructive and supportive — is inevitable. When we have feedback, we must share it. There is no better way for us to grow, improve and have a positive impact on the employees around us by than sharing our personal experience. When offering feedback, lead with the way you felt: “I felt confident when I was able to complete all the steps correctly. The way this skill was presented really helped me learn it.” Avoid “you” statements, such as: “You said this thing and I was upset because ...” This approach often makes the recipient of the feedback defensive. When we become defensive, we halt hearing and start building our defense statements in our mind.
Consider soliciting feedback by using surveys or even a confidential feedback email or suggestion box.Feedback when not shared is a missed opportunity to improve! With feedback, keep curiosity in mind. Curiosity should be the leading behavior when both offering and receiving feedback. Every situation is an opportunity for us to learn more about others, about ourselves and about our business.
While my dream is that we would eradicate unsafe moments and environments altogether, I know this isn’t possible. Even when approaching situations with the best intentions, sometimes we have missteps. But I am confident we can commit and take action to create safer environments, one interaction at a time.
With improving communication, taking personal accountability for our growth and development, leading with curiosity and gratitude, and providing candid feedback, we are well on our way to creating the type of culture that supports learning. We want to be heard, seen and assured of the difference we make. Take time to consider what energy you are bringing into a room when you enter, and then be the change you wish to see.