Psychological Safety & Learning Organizations

Psychological Safety and Learning

Why would you want your workplace to be a learning organization? Because learning is the key to your future success, and being a learning organization gives your company a better chance at continued or new success.

(Side note here: Check out our What Is a Learning Organization? article and Becoming a Learning Organization recorded webinar with Michelle Ockers to learn more about learning organizations). 

Amy Edmonson is one of the acknowledged gurus of learning organization theory, and in fact she contributed to the very well-known Harvard Business Review article Is Yours a Learning Organization? More recently,  she’s focused in on one key aspect of learning organizations. In fact, you could call it a bit of a pre-requisite. And that’s what Edmonson and others call psychological safety.

It’s Edmonson’s claim, and a claim she backs up well with data in her book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, that you can’t truly have a learning organization unless you’ve first got psychological safety.

We’ll give you an introduction to psychological safety and Edmonson’s thoughts on it, including how psychological safety contributes to learning, growth, and even innovation at an organization, in this article.

What Is Psychological Safety?

If psychological safety is so important at the workplace, it will probably help if we define it first. Let’s go to the source and see how Edmonson defines it in her book:

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 or 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.

Why Is Psychological Safety Important?

So you may be saying that psychological safety sounds nice and all, but is it really important? Again, let’s see what Amy Edmonson has to say about this:

When a work environment has reasonably high psychological safety, good things happen: mistakes are reported quickly so that prompt corrective action can be taken; seamless coordination across groups or departments is enabled, and potentially game-changing ideas for innovation are shared. In short, psychological safety is a crucial source of value creation in organizations operating in a complex, changing environment.

This all sounds good, right? But remember, this isn’t just Amy Edmonson spouting off what she thinks is true. She’s been researching this in the field for more than twenty years and has data to back it up.

Tips for Creating Psychological Safety At Work

So maybe by now you’ve bought into the importance of psychological safety at work and want to know how to achieve it. Here’s what Edmonson suggests:

Reframe–change the way you discuss things at work so you’re not sending out implicit or indirect negative value connotations. For example, if you’re in safety, don’t talk about an incident, talk about an event (incident has a negative connotation whereas event sounds more neutral). Likewise, you might want to quit talking about “investigations” and talk about something like a learning team instead.

Invite participation–especially initially, you may have to actively and repeatedly invite input from workers. And this may include rephrasing your invitations so they’re less likely to be seen as an indirect accusation (“Who messed up this week?”) and more likely to be seen as aspirational and inspirational (“Was there anything we could have done better?”).

Respond appreciatively and productively--when employees DO speak up and/or offer suggestions in another manner, reply in a respectful manner that makes your appreciation known. If the person is talking about a failure, don’t react negatively to that news. And then follow through to implement any lessons learned and/or provide a path for moving forward. Remember, no matter how appreciative you sound when the employee speaks, if nothing ever changes, you’ll quickly lose buy-in and employees will stop sharing.


Conclusion: Psychological Safety is the Key to Organization Learning, Problem Identification, Problem Solving, and Innovation

If you found this brief introduction to pyschological safety interesting, definitely do continue learning by reading Edmonson’s Fearless Organization (it’s a pretty short book and a quick read). To learn more about this, you might also want to look into Google’s Project Aristotle project, which Edmonson discusses in her book as well.

Good luck creating a sense of psychological safety at your workplace and let us know your own thoughts (don’t be afraid!).

Don’t forget to download the free P-D-C-A infographic below to help you develop your learning organization. 

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FREE PDCA Cycle Infographic

Download this free infographic of the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle commonly used for quality control, project planning, and continuous improvement.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 20 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center, and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training.

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