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Team Effectiveness

Embedding Psychological Safety in Leadership Development Programs

Embedding Psychological Safety in Leadership Development Programs

Reinforce an Environment of Psychological Safety

Embedding psychological safety into learning and development (L&D) programs is not merely an added advantage—it can help foster a culture of continuous improvement and innovation. Psychological safety, the feeling that one can speak up, take risks, and be vulnerable without fear of negative consequences, is the secret behind best-in-class programs that allow employees to fully participate in and benefit from L&D initiatives. 

Psychologically Safe Learning

We're big fans of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety here at FlashPoint. After seeing how the concepts impact the leaders and teams we serve, I thought about how we can embed psychological safety into each and every program to give participants an environment that enables Inclusion, Learner, Contributor, and Challenger Safety. 

After all, when it rains, it pours! Not only does psychological safety facilitate a participant's learning experience, but it also models for them the environment they can create for their teams to engage and innovate. Malcolm Knowles' theory of andragogy (the Needs of Adult Learners) clarifies several important points to consider when developing learning experiences for adults, which also resonates with how psychological safety can be incorporated into programs.

Inclusion Safety

What is it? The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety clarifies that Inclusion Safety "satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong." It means it is safe to be yourself authentically and that your worth is guaranteed as a human being.

First and most importantly, Inclusion Safety is a standard set by facilitators, program managers, and participants. It's foundational for a leadership cohort program to succeed and should be considered from the moment participants are selected to when they enter the (virtual or in-person) session, all the way through to their final session. Inclusion Safety allows participants to be vulnerable when they share challenges, successes, questions, and more. Without it, programs would be awfully quiet!

Suggested program components: 

  • Self-reflection, such as journey lines or “highs and lows” reflections
  • Self-assessments or diagnostic tools to personalize or prioritize learning
  • Small group breakouts and sharing experiences, stories, challenges, and reflections

These programmatic choices also connect to andragogy's assumptions around the self-concept of the learner, as well as the emphasis that adult learners bring previous knowledge and experience to learning. Participants learn when their self-concept is supported – by putting them in the driver's seat with self-reflection and prioritization opportunities to guide their learning journey, we respect their existing knowledge and competence. Using small group sharing to link their previous knowledge and experience to their current learning enables them to build upon their experience, applying new information while also hearing a broader view of others' experiences and insights. 

Learner Safety

What is it? Learner Safety allows participants to engage in the learning process without fear of making a mistake.

Enabling Learner Safety during a development program can manifest as collaborative learning through sharing experiences, knowledge, or tips and tricks. It's about creating a space where it is not just permissible but encouraged to ask questions, admit to not knowing the answer, and even share when something goes wrong.

Suggested program components:

  • Key learning presentations in a capstone session
  • Job shadowing
  • Mentoring opportunities with alumni from previous program groups

Andragogy acknowledges that adult learners must be ready to learn, and each learner has an orientation to learning—which can be helped along by showing them how the learning will help them with challenges or improve their effectiveness. Opportunities to hear from others how they've applied learning to their roles and how participating in the development program made a difference can help participants to understand "what's in it for me?".

Contributor Safety

What is it? Contributor Safety empowers participants to contribute and make a difference. The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety shares that it is the exchange of "autonomy, guidance, and encouragement ... for effort and results."

Experience is an incredibly valuable (and necessary!) component for learning. Fostering Contributor Safety during a program helps ground participants in the real here-and-now, instead of thought experiments or best-case scenarios. This may include encouraging participants to share how they used what they learned in a previous session, openly and honestly.

Suggested program components:

  • Self-led peer coaching circles where they can apply content to current challenges
  • Practical, real-world application scenarios or simulations
  • Problem-solving using current work context to apply concepts

Andragogy stipulates that when participants can use real challenges or relatable scenarios to connect learning to their roles, it equips them to put the learning into practice and helps them see the benefits. The participant’s orientation to learning, as well as their motivation, is supported when they can identify and understand what real-world problem or intrinsic value the learning will provide to them directly.

Challenger Safety

What is it? Challenger Safety "satisfies the basic human need to make things better," according to The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety.

Facilitating Challenger Safety in a program means creating a space where participants are encouraged to cultivate innovation and share new ideas that challenge the status quo. However, moving the organization forward must be at the heart of these initiatives— if it's just a presentation that will not be considered or implemented, it won't have the same impact.

Suggested program components:

  • Business case presentations to senior leadership
  • Project competitions between sub-groups to solve a cross-functional problem or create an initiative for a business priority
  • Strategic initiative brainstorming and implementation planning

Andragogy focuses on the adult perspective of problem orientation because adults prioritize learning that makes a difference or makes things better. Participants engage on a very deep level when their motivation to improve things or solve problems is respected and encouraged. Especially in highly respected leadership development programs, participants are eager to improve themselves and the organization and are often fantastic candidates for cross-functional collaboration to make a real impact.

Well-designed, intentional program elements can create and reinforce psychological safety, while also being consistent with best-practice adult learning theory. As learning and development professionals, we can provide the example of what it looks like to have psychological safety within our programs. It's a win for participants, the organization, and talent management and learning and development leaders! 

With better psychological safety, every leader, employee, or team member can contribute, challenge, and bring the best of themselves to your organization. Psychological safety training is a proven tactic for creating engaged teams who trust one another, commit to common goals, and achieve bottom-line results. Follow the link below to register for our upcoming workshop and explore how psychological safety can positively impact your leaders, teams, and organizations:

Register for The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Public Workshop

Rachel Semple

Rachel Semple works across the FlashPoint client journey, from crafting initial proposals to developing and reviewing program deliverables.