Psychological Safety: 7 Strategies for Creating a Supportive Learning Environment

The concept of psychological safety is not always an easy one. 

Psychological safety is the key to unlocking creativity and innovation in teams. Imagine a world where team members are free to share their wildest ideas without fear of rejection, humiliation, or punishment. That’s what psychological safety is all about: the expectation that everyone’s voice will be heard and valued, no matter how bold or unconventional their ideas may be. Where team members feel free to take risks, solicit feedback, and share their concerns and mistakes without fear of being criticized or shamed.

When psychological safety in the workplace is present, people feel comfortable bringing their full, authentic selves to work and are okay with sharing their thoughts in front of others. And organizations with a culture based on psychologically safe work environments reap the benefits.

Psychological safety in the Learning Environment

However, how does this translate into a workplace learning environment? The learning process in the workplace is loaded with personal risk, even in safe situations.

According to Dr. Timothy Clark, CEO of LeaderFactor and author of the 2020 book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, “individuals can feel threats, vulnerability and potential exposure to social and emotional harm when trying to learn something new.”

From Dr. Clark’s perspective, “the absence of psychological safety can inflict devastating emotional wounds, neutralize performance, paralyze potential, and crater an individual’s sense of self-worth.”

So, what can we do to support people better in this fragile state of learning? 

7 Steps Toward Creating a Psychologically Safe Learning Environment

1. Make psychological safety the center of what you do.

Behavior model. This begins by modeling the behavior you want to see. Connect creating a safe haven for learning to a higher purpose of greater organizational need. Without psychological safety in learning, the business will fail to innovate and be engaged. Let others see you asking for help freely and without judgment, give help when asked. 

2. Pay close attention to classroom behaviors.

Focus on learner dynamics. Do some people seem to exhibit significantly more or less psychological safety behaviors than others, or is the playing field fairly even?

  • Advocate for consistent behaviors. Setting ground rules is a good start, but advocating and keeping people aligned with those behaviors is critical.
  • Consider the audience when developing strategies to enhance psychological safety in each class because one size does not fit all.

3. Encourage Everyone to Contribute.

Show genuine curiosity. L&D must discover, understand and consider people’s different lived experiences to engage in true learning collaboration. Ask questions of everyone, and encourage debate. Be open-minded, compassionate, and willing to listen when someone is brave enough to offer a thought or opinion. Develop a coaching style that encourages learners to speak with courage. 

4. Make an intentional effort to promote open discussions.

Strengthen your feedback and debriefing skills. Begin by creating a space for people to ask follow-up questions, question the content and raise concerns. Develop an arsenal of powerful, open-ended questions, and then listen actively and intently to understand feelings, values, and facts. 

  • Provide opportunities for others to learn how to share constructive feedback with one another and what respectful responses look like.
  • Improving your feedback and debriefing skills will yield learners more willing to share challenges, express confusion, and celebrate their learning progress. 

5. Accept failure as a norm. 

Don’t punish experimentation and risk-taking in the class. Allowing for experimentation in the class may bring failure but it may also demonstrate great success. Shutting down those who take risks to express a different point of view shuts down engagement rather than encouraging innovation. 

Show recognition that mistakes are an opportunity for growth. Encourage learning from failure and disappointment, and openly share your hard-won lessons learned from mistakes. 

6. Create space for new ideas.

Provide an encouraging environment. Positive interactions and conversations between team members are built on trust and mutual respect. Encourage and embrace expertise among everyone and celebrate the successes of the groups versus singling out a “hero.” Set the tone that new ideas are valued and encouraged by promoting cross-functional collaboration to bring diverse perspectives and skills to the table.   

7. Celebrate wins.

Pay attention to and recognize successes. Celebrate what’s going well, however small, and appreciate people’s efforts. Encouraging and expressing gratitude reinforces the learner’s sense of self. There are times when a learning effort is not successful. However, the effort learners put into understanding or completing a process can be appreciated. When we focus on the positive intent, we create a learning culture of positivity and motivation that will help encourages further engagement. 

To wrap this up. 

Remember that “culture” is simply defined by “the way we do things around here.” Changing organizational culture may not be within our grasp, but as L&D professionals, we can impact the culture within a learning environment.  For some, this may feel like a tall order, but how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. So think about building a psychologically safe learning culture in terms of small changes that yield small wins.

By taking the steps outlined above, you can create a psychologically safe culture of learning, where new ideas are encouraged and valued, leading to the unlocking of creative thought of all learners in your organization. 

Shannon Tipton

Shannon Tipton

As Owner of Learning Rebels, Shannon Tipton is a skilled learning strategist, content developer and International speaker. Shannon has over 20 years of leadership experience developing successful learning strategies and infrastructures for training departments within organizations in North America, Europe and Korea.

Shannon works with people and organizations to develop learning solutions that brings actual business results. Recognized as bringing real-world expertise into the learning field, Shannon integrates technologies and social learning tools to strengthen workplace alignment, enhance collaboration and increase learning connectivity.

As author of “Disruptive Learning” Shannon frequently speaking at conferences across North America and Europe and ranks as one of the top 100 L&D influencers on Twitter (@stipton).

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