This past week, Dr. Warner Burke and I were doing a Zoom session at Teachers College (TC), Columbia University about our new book, Developing Learning Agility- Using the Burke Assessments. The moderator, Rosella Garcia, asked me a question about my first day as a student at Teachers College. The day stood out to me because the faculty shared with us, the students, about their expertise and areas of study. The professors then asked us what it was that we expected to learn. I was outraged because, for the past 16 years of school, my teachers had always told me what I was supposed to learn by way of tests, term papers, and assigned readings. My previous “learning” which had been “spoon-fed” left me speechless and frustrated. Why was I being asked? These professors were the ones with the answers. Slowly, over the next several weeks I came to realize how refreshing, rewarding, and empowering that paradigm shift had been.

This week I came across a Harvard Business School article by Timothy Clark, entitled, “Agile Doesn’t Work Without Psychological Safety.” Now, as a lifelong independent learner, it was immediately appealing to me. My colleague, Dr. Burke, and I had referenced this content during the previously noted Zoom session at Teachers College at Columbia University. One of the things we say about Learning Agility is context matters. A person could have all the Learning Agility in the world but put them into an oppressive environment and you may or may not see them demonstrate a lot of Learning Agility, at least the way that Burke defines it.

Now let’s look at context through a slightly different lens; let’s call it Psychological Safety. Reading Clark’s article caused me to look a little deeper and I found another article he wrote called, “The Four Stages of Psychological Safety.” Stage 1 is called Inclusion Safety. Stage 2 is called Learner Safety. Stage 3 is called Contributor Safety and Stage 4 is called Challenger Safety. Clark says, “The presence of fear in an organization is the first sign of weak leadership.” I agree, and think about the impact that fear has on a person trying a new (for them) learning agile behavior? Clark says the first stage of Psychological Safety is when someone is admitted to a group or team. For a team at work, it happens when we are hired. Informal membership is granted or withheld by the people with whom we work. Being appointed to a new product team gives you membership. Clark says you still need the team’s sociocultural acceptance to gain Inclusion Safety.

Stage 2, or Learner Safety, means you feel safe to engage in the discovery process, ask questions, experiment, and even make mistakes. Without Learner Safety a person will remain passive due to the risk of acting beyond a tacit line of permission, according to Clark. For Burke, the essence of Performance and Interpersonal Risk-Taking means doing something you have never been before. If you always succeed at these “risks” then it probably means that these risks are very small. Part of Risk-Taking, according to Burke, is that at some point there is failure which is an opportunity for learning and may indicate the outer limits of risk. Failing at something “new” is part of the process of developing skills in a new area. Clark says the team may even supply some of the confidence that the individual lacks.

Stage 3, or Contributor Safety, involves an individual performance improvement in an environment that offers respect and permission. The individual is “invited” to participate as a full and active team member. According to Clark, Contributor Safety comes with an expectation to perform work in an assigned role with appropriate boundaries, and that you will perform competently. The expectation is that you won’t offend the social norms of the team. Sometimes there is a connection to credentials. A person may be denied contributor status for illegitimate reasons due to the arrogance or insecurity of the leader, personal or institutional bias, prejudice or discrimination, lack of empathy, or aloofness. Contributor Safety emerges when the person performs well. The leader and other team members need to do their part by providing encouragement and appropriate autonomy.

Stage 4, or Challenger Safety, allows you to challenge the status quo without retribution, reprisal, or risk of damage to your reputation. Clark says it gives you the confidence to speak truth to power when you think something needs to change. This allows a person to overcome the pressure to conform and focus on the creative process.

I don’t want to say that “Context” and “Psychological Safety” are synonymous. Clearly, there is overlap and similarity. Let’s say once this “precondition” is positive or supportive it sets the stage for a person to demonstrate one or more of the Burke Learning Agility Dimensions. The Burke Dimensions are: 1) Speed; 2) Flexibility; 3) Experimenting; 4) Collaborating; 5) Performance Risk-Taking; 5) Interpersonal Risk-Taking; 6) Collaborating; 7) Information Gathering; 8) Feedback Seeking; 9) Reflecting.

In summary, I would direct our focus to a couple of issues, both individual and organizational, which negatively affect Psychological Safety and then the Learning Agility capability where they are allowed to persist. One aspect of the Interpersonal Risk-Taking dimension of Learning Agility is to articulate a perspective or point of view that is not held by others. If an organization doesn’t support that capability, it will in short order stop being a capability. The organizational graveyard is full of former companies who stopped supporting that interpersonal capability and disappeared. When feedback no longer is sought or given, something that starts as intellectual conflict deteriorates into interpersonal conflict. A different perspective or opinion that once expanded the conversation now inhibits it. Those types of organizations are not Psychological Safe or Learning Agile. A topic for another day will look at teams and how they go about creating and maintaining Psychological Safety and support Burke’s Learning Agility.

About the Author  

David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for E.A.S.I-Consult®E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.