February 7, 2022

What’s Plastic, What’s Glass?: How to Foster a Culture of Learning with Psychological Safety

Melissa Malec

You don’t just build a learning culture; you foster one. That might seem like splitting hairs or focusing too much on semantics, but the way you talk about something frames the way you think about something, and thoughts shape actions. 

To build a learning culture is to put the frameworks in place so that learning can occur, but having those frameworks doesn’t always mean that people will engage with learning. This is why we need to foster a learning culture: because we will see more permanency and organic, genuine engagement.

Fostering something means giving it the time, care, encouragement and yes, the tools and frameworks it needs to thrive. So how do you foster a learning culture? 

You start with psychological safety.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety has become somewhat of a buzz word ever since Google released an article in 2015 that broke down the five key things any successful team needed. The first and most important of which was — you guessed it — psychological safety. 

Psychological safety is when people do not fear punishment for making and admitting mistakes, asking for help, or sharing different ideas. Punishment includes social and interpersonal threats such as feeling judged, embarrassed, ridiculed, or missing out on promotions and opportunities. Psychological safety also extends to feeling comfortable in pointing out others’ mistakes. 

Why Do You Need It at Work?

When people feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to share diverse ideas and be themselves. One of Learnerbly’s values is ‘Be your authentic self,’ which is only possible because we place psychological safety at our culture’s base. Encouraging and welcoming ideas without judgement is key to innovation and creativity at work. 

By having psychological safety embedded in your company culture, you’ll get more out of your people because they won’t be afraid of sharing an idea or an opinion that may change your business for the better.

Learning Cultures and Psychological Safety

Growth has a positive impact on businesses. It helps to elevate productivity and can add skills to your existing workforce, which are currently lacking. Knowing that it holds such potential, we have to acknowledge and accept the initial learning curve in ourselves and others to reach it. 

We’re improving for a reason — we lack a skill that we want and need. As we grow into a person who has mastered that skill, mistakes will happen. This may seem obvious, but we need to know that it’s obvious and accepted by the organisation and the people we work with.

Psychological safety allows us first to identify what skills we are lacking and wish to improve. It then lets us own our mistakes and grow from them as we embark on our learning journey. Critically, it means we have social support in doing so.

For example, I write and edit blog content, but my role has expanded over time to include social media and website copywriting. These tasks require a different writing skill than long-form blog posts do and one which I needed to build a muscle in. The people I work with — and for — know that I’m developing my skillset in relation to copywriting, and their feedback and encouragement on the copy I produce as I go on my learning journey reflect that.

What Does Psychological Safety Look Like in a Learning Environment?

At work, growth happens across personal development and performance as you’ll see in our graph below, but when you’re juggling growth, you need to know which balls are plastic and which are glass. Mistakes on performance-related stuff could impact the business, and if there’s no business left, there’s nowhere to grow at work.

Firstly, let’s not be overly dramatic. Mistakes happen. We’re all a work in progress. Owning them and being humble enough to learn how to do better next time will take you forward, Kintsugi style.

Identifying where you can play and learn safely is helpful for taking bigger risks. Do things that scare and challenge you. Try out new recipes. You could start by identifying what’s plastic and what’s glass, what will break when dropped and what will survive to be juggled again.

Next Jump uses a boat analogy to illustrate this -  when learning, you might poke holes on the boat by error. That’s okay, and smaller holes below the waterline are nothing we can’t fix with a solid screw, but when it comes to learning (this excludes opportunities such as when Netflix bought Icarus for $5million), then preferably significant risks should happen above the waterline so we don’t sink. 

And where’s above the waterline? It’s culture itself, it’s Employee Resource Groups, employee-led initiatives, lunch and learns, it’s everything that’s on your learning and development offering, which, as we saw on the graph above, lives on the same growth spectrum as performance but never immediately intersects. This is imperative because it limits the impact on anything customer-facing while still allowing people to build up their learning muscle.  

For me, copywriting in a growing company like ours, where we are testing new messaging all the time in a small capacity, means I get to play with plastic. However, if I knew that we would push something we wrote far and wide, I would be playing with glass and cautious of misrepresenting the brand through my experimental copywriting.

That’s why a workplace that prioritises psychology safety in its learning culture wouldn’t want to superimpose personal development and performance directly. By not overlappiong the two you are creating a space for psychological safety.

What Does Workplace Learning Look Like When Psychological Safety is Absent?

Put simply, people won’t deliberately learn or engage. They’ll fear being judged unfairly, and rather than putting their energy into growth they are trying to survive on a day-to-day basis. They may go through the motions of attending mandatory training, but nothing gets absorbed. 

That’s partly because some workplace training and mandatory learnings pigeon-hole and restrict development to certain areas and skills. It’s also because people are too preoccupied to give any thought to growth.

Let’s revisit my example of learning to be a copywriter. If psychological safety were absent from the Learnerbly learning culture, I wouldn’t try new techniques or introduce things I’m learning to the rest of the team. I might not even try my hand at copywriting at all. If I did, I would play it safe so that I didn’t expose my lacking skillset. I certainly wouldn’t reach out for feedback and guidance for fear of judgement. I would suffer, and Learnerbly wouldn’t fill a skills gap in the team. 

Unlock Your People’s Learning Potential with Psychological Safety

If you want your people to grow and develop, you need to foster a learning culture with psychological safety as priority number one. Just as Google identified it as the first ingredient for a productive team, it’s the first and foremost for learning at work. Just be sure to help your people identify what’s plastic and what’s glass.

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