Regardless of where I work, I see a common hesitation among employees. Despite their organization's offerings--tuition reimbursement, professional development resources, and training programs--many don't exercise their right to learning opportunities. 

Maybe it's because we have too much work, too little time, or not enough direction on what skills to work on. Regardless of the reason, it's clear that many don't feel development is a priority. It's unfortunate because your organization's ability to learn is key to its continued progress. 

In my experience, employees don't pursue learning opportunities or take advantage of developmental resources due to their managers. Unfortunately, managers unintentionally send signals that on the job learning is a poor use of company time and resources. 

We've all been there. Due to the fear of ridicule, isolation, or rejection, we don't ask questions, internalize vulnerabilities, and hold back ideas. In the process, we rob ourselves and our teams of learning opportunities.

This skepticism and inaction hinges on a concept known as psychological safety. Harvard organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson was the first to introduce the idea of "team psychological safety" and described it as "a shared belief held by members of a team that the group is safe to take interpersonal risks." 

It might not seem that significant, but in Edmondson's TEDx talk, she shared numerous instances where employees withheld information critical to the success of their teams for fear of repercussions. 

If you want your teams to speak up when they don't know something, then you'll have to create an environment conducive to learning. 

Here were the three takeaways from Edmondson's TEDx talk to help managers foster team psychological safety. 

1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem. 

Let's admit it; we all hate being wrong. To prevent instances where our vulnerabilities are exposed, we avoid specific topics, projects, and might even refrain from sharing information to cover up mistakes. 

To address this instinct, managers need to instill a growth mindset; a simple belief that work and life is a learning process. We don't "fail," we either succeed or learn. 

As managers emphasize the importance of learning, employees will come around to the idea that it's okay to admit shortcomings. It's just the first step in the learning process. 

2. Acknowledge your own fallibility. 

Managers set the tone for their teams. If you want everyone to feel safe disclosing their flaws, then you'll have to be willing to go first. Despite your best intentions, employees mirror behavior. When you're open and honest, it inspires the same in others. 

When my managers have chosen to be authentic, it led to multiple areas of joint team interest and concern. The sad thing is, no one said anything until it was brought to light. 

3. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions. 

An easy way to encourage a growth-mindset and simultaneously build team psychological safety is to get in the habit of asking questions and speaking up. 

Similar to the point above, it sends a signal to employees that you encourage the behavior and support intellectual curiosity. All great responses were at one point questions. 

Time and time again, I've seen great organizational benefits go unused for fear of consequences. For your team to embrace learning opportunities, you'll first need to create an environment where they feel safe admitting they have something to learn. 

Published on: Oct 15, 2019
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