Five ways to create a continuous learning culture within a psychologically safe environment

When your team builds a culture of continuous learning, they build a space where they can step outside their comfort zone and innovate.

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The mass exodus from the workforce known as the “Great Resignation” has made us all pause and wonder at the root cause of these departures. Especially in the tech industry where resignations rank among the highest with a 4.5% increase in departures compared to 2020.

We conducted a recent pulse survey and found that developers rank “opportunities to learn” in the top three reasons they stay with an organization or decide to move on. In addition to having both formal and ad hoc learning opportunities, an organization’s environment and culture play a major role in supporting the learning needs of developers and technologists.

Enabling continuous learning in a psychologically safe work environment

In a previous post, we discussed what psychological safety is and how to evaluate if your organization is psychologically safe. Psychological safety is when an individual feels comfortable sharing their opinions and ideas without fear of judgment. It creates a virtuous cycle of trust and results in an environment that supports continuous learning. Company cultures that embrace openness encourage team members to be vulnerable and share questions, issues, concerns, and ideas. These team interactions spark curiosity and create opportunities for learning.

Continuous learning is the process of constant skill and knowledge development. The ongoing learning can be on a personal or professional level, and people who seek both information and formal learning opportunities are commonly referred to as “lifelong learners.”

When professional learning and growth are prioritized within an organization, employees aren’t just focused on completing a task or checking a box. Instead, they desire to find the best way to solve challenges or develop something new and innovative. Oftentimes this leads employees on a journey of learning in order to solve something they’ve never encountered before, and they’re willing to step outside of their comfort zone, take a risk, and discuss a new idea or approach with their teammates.

When members of your team feel confident in their work and they aren’t afraid to fail or make a mistake in pursuit of the best solution for the collective organization, this sets the foundation for a psychologically safe space. It should be noted that “failures" and mistakes can happen along the way, but are not necessary or guaranteed to happen.

Creating a culture that supports lifelong learning

Below we provide five recommended ways to create an environment of continuous learning within a psychologically safe space.

Make it clear that mistakes will happen, and that’s ok.

Engineering teams have measures in place to minimize oversights that might cause their software to become vulnerable or unstable. Coding guidelines, unit testing, and code reviews are some of the most common checks and balances—code reviews alone can reduce the number of bugs by ~60%. But since there is a human element to writing code, mistakes are bound to happen, and having empathy for your team is the best way to overcome any bumps in the road.

Set the expectation that growth, progress, and innovation can’t happen without a few stumbling blocks from time to time. When employees are encouraged to share their flaws and the steps they took for resolution, others can learn, and your organization is less likely to make the same mistake twice. Learning from past mistakes lets an organization evolve. A bonus benefit from openly sharing mistakes: employees can more quickly process and overcome feelings of regret or discouragement that might accompany the error.

Leadership that acknowledges their own imperfections or shortcomings

Hey, no one is perfect, right? When your leadership team is open and vulnerable, they’re more relatable, build bridges of trust, and inspire others to do their best work.

Employees get signals from their managers on the best way to handle projects, tackle challenges, or bring new ideas to the table. If leaders hide who they really are or the mistakes they’ve made, employees will do the same. Leaders who put on a facade and never admit to their shortcomings might cause direct reports to believe they have to be flawless to fulfill their own responsibilities or to obtain a similar management role.

On the other hand, when leaders let their vulnerabilities be known, they become more credible. The team likely sees their leader as more grounded and “human,” and they’re instantly more relatable. Direct reports are more likely to come to them for their input, advice, and mentorship when faced with a challenge. Employees are encouraged to perform their best, take chances, and speak up when they need help because they know both their successes and failures are accepted in the open work culture.

Leadership that models their own curiosity

When team leaders model their own curiosity, it reinforces the value and establishes the expected behaviors within the team. Curiosity results in learning and innovation. When a leader follows an “innovation technique” with their team, the participants can feel more comfortable speaking up and voicing their opinion since there is a known process the group is following. They feel psychologically safe.

Aside from having a set innovation technique, it’s important that there is buy-in, everyone knows where they stand in the process (what phase they’re in), and everyone has a chance to weigh in. This can be done both synchronously in a meeting and asynchronously.

Disney’s Method is one approach to sparking creative ideas with three stages: the dreamer, the realist, and the critic. This process helps to create a thinking flow that can be used to generate, evaluate, critique ideas, and solve problems. The first step is about sharing ideas and solutions. The second step helps to turn an idea into reality, and the third step is meant to identify weaknesses to help create a flawless plan. By having a formal process for a team to follow, participants can feel more empowered to speak up, collaborate, and learn from each other.

Encourage employees to follow their curiosity and ask questions

Being curious is recognizing the gap of our knowledge about something that interests us and closing that gap through seeking new knowledge and learnings. According to Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, “choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty. We have to ask questions, admit to not knowing, risk being told that we shouldn’t be asking, and, sometimes, make discoveries that lead to discomfort.”

Curiosity starts with the sharing of knowledge. Sharing interesting or unique pieces of information with your team can expose others to a new way of thinking. There is a snowball effect that happens when ideas are shared. The more knowledge that is shared, the more interest is built, and the more curious people become.

Have you ever remained silent in a group because you didn’t want to speak up and admit you didn’t understand the topic being discussed? Curiosity can sometimes lead to discomfort. By creating a safe space that removes the shame that can come with confusion, employees can become passionate about learning more. A simple way to build curiosity and interest is by encouraging your team to ask questions in different settings from small scrum meetings to organization-wide Ask Me Anything events (AMAs).

Openly share knowledge and make it visible to the entire organization.

Actor and radio personality Casey Kasem once said, “Success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You’re only as good as the people you work with and the people you work for.” It’s a great reminder of any organization’s many interdependencies that lead to miraculous outcomes.

Regardless of the team you sit on or your position on the organizational chart, your work can’t (and shouldn’t) be completed in isolation. So, why create silos of knowledge and keep your learnings from other departments?

Knowledge silos keep employees from understanding and learning from other departments and individuals. Employees are forced to start over from scratch and productivity is shot. Sometimes this “knowledge hoarding” mentality is baked into the culture because employees fear that they might be valued less if they share their knowledge with others. But there is a far better and more efficient way to work—by breaking down knowledge silos.

When employees have an “aha” moment, why not share it for others to learn too? The same goes for when a teammate is involved in a disaster. Sharing stories of failures helps others learn too.

When a developer solves a massive problem by chasing down hard-to-find source code, they should share it with others so the issue can be solved even faster in the future. An employee from the finance team and an employee from the marketing team might be looking to solve a similar problem, and a SaaS offering with scalable knowledge might be part of the answer. Making invaluable knowledge accessible for everyone within the organization helps to drive down redundant work, and employees are able to spend more time growing, learning, and innovating.

Revamping your company culture to support continuous learning

According to Gartner, the topmost challenge that software engineering leaders today face today is hiring, developing, and retaining talent. Developing talent and providing opportunities to learn will be critical in 2022 to ensure your talent in high-demand sticks around.

The five ways provided above give organizations a starting point for creating a psychologically safe environment that cultivates endless learning. In the next and final post, we discuss what to look for in tools and solutions that support the said recommendations.

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