Psychological safety is one of the latest buzzwords in learning and development (L&D). Employers are looking more deeply at their culture, through a more empathetic lens. Why? Because when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they realized that people drive the culture of the organization, and if the people are not doing well, the impact is on more than engagement — it impacts business results.
To know what people need to bring their best self to work every day, all we have to do is take a look back at our Psychology 100 class and remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This model tells us that needs are great motivators of human behavior — and as learning leaders, we know that behavior impacts performance.
To refresh your memory, there is a graphic of the hierarchy below. The three needs in the middle are the psychological needs. Once a person has fulfilled one need, he or she will typically strive to fulfill the next one, from the bottom up.
When we think about this model within the context of the learning environment, we can see that if we want to drive performance, our learners must feel safe. Once they feel safe, they will search for social interaction and a sense of belonging and then respect and achievement. As learning leaders, we can tap into this process to improve performance in a consistent and measurable way.
I’ll say it louder for the people in the back: If people do not feel safe, they cannot learn. If people do not feel safe, they will never have a sense of belonging or engagement. If people do not feel safe, they will shut down and will not achieve results.
If we start by creating a psychologically safe environment, of the odds of successful behavior change and improved performance will grow. There is real science behind this statement; an article published by Harvard Business Review brought to light the reality of feeling unsafe: When people are afraid of being humiliated by asking questions or making mistakes, it activates the amygdala, which is responsible for fight or flight reactions in the brain. When the amygdala is activated, learners cannot think clearly and may react without thinking.
It is difficult to learn in high stress and high anxiety conditions. We can prepare our learners and our learning environment to enhance safety and impact overall performance, but we must start by changing our minds. Here are some ideas that can help.
Mistakes Are Good
Learning activities should create opportunities for real mistakes, like the ones that happen on the job. Then, after learners make a mistake, there must be time for personal reflection and discussion. Facilitators must communicate that mistakes are a part of the learning process and stress the importance of being solution-oriented as we work through them. Learners need to be comfortable taking risks and being vulnerable in order to bring their entire self into their learning environment.
Transparency Is Necessary
Tell stories in class about when you were new, and share your fears, emotions and mistakes. Encourage leaders to drop in and share their own stories of how the team has had great success, how they have helped people bounce back or what the team learned after a misstep. Discuss how the team has evolved through learning and lifted each other up in ways that frame mistakes as opportunities for learning.
Be a Listener, and Encourage Listening
Teach learners about active listening and being in the moment with each other. Model the behavior, thank people for sharing and ensure that everyone is heard; keep a single individual or individuals from dominating the conversation. Remember that good listeners involve other people in the conversation; be a facilitator who welcomes and embraces feedback.
Communicate Clarity, Safety and Interdependence
It’s important to clearly communicate learning and performance objectives, and part of that clarity is telling people they are going to make mistakes and that is OK to do so. Be a learning adventure guide who helps learners think through challenges and effective solutions in an engaging way. Let them know that asking questions helps them learn and develop. Encourage collaboration and open mindsets, and be sure to give clear criteria for the work done in small groups, including being curious and open, asking questions, listening, and giving feedback. This approach will set up the groups for success.
When learners feel safe, teams are more productive, engaged, and likely to trust each other and communicate better — all of which will lead to better overall performance.