Psychological Safety and Learning Conversations

Psychological safety simply means it’s possible to give tough feedback and to have open, honest and difficult conversations without needing to tip toe around the truth. Psychological safety describes a climate in which raising a dissenting view is expected and welcomed. Tolerating dissent allows for productive discussions and early detection of problems.

In psychologically safe environments people believe:

  • If they make mistakes they won’t be penalised;
  • If they make mistakes people won’t think less of them;
  • If they’re honest others won’t hold grudges against them.
  • If they’re honest others won’t take action to alienate them from colleagues;
  • If they ask for help others will not resent or humiliate them;
  • If they offer a wacky idea to solve a problem they will not be marginalised or the idea frowned upon.


Psychological safety does not imply:

  • Coziness;
  • People are close friends;
  • An absence of pressure or challenge;
  • A group has to be in agreement or cohesive; and
  • Members are unable to disturb existing levels of harmony

 

In psychologically safe work places it’s easy to talk the truth without fear. Open and honest conversation underpins all communication.

Psychological safety is unrelated to personality. It’s about the perceived consequences of being your self and being straightforward even when the news is not good. Psychological safety is the cornerstone of all organisations that have successfully transitioned to become authentic learning organisations; an organisation going beyond being a Professional Learning Community in name only.

Over the last two decades, working alongside teachers and leaders in schools and in centres, our experiences inform us the vast majority of people in educational organisations do not believe they are psychologically safe. It prevents authentic open and honest conversation promoting learning and improvement from flourishing. Instead, educators are telling us that because they can feel extreme levels of discomfort when required to talk openly and honestly (with colleagues and parents for example), they default to sugar coating, masking, withdrawing and avoiding. What creates levels of discomfort is the fear that results from not feeling psychologically safe to be honest and open.

We believe many artefacts confirm levels of psychological safety are low in our schools and centres:

  • Do you tip-toe around the truth when at work? Do your colleagues and leaders do the same? Do you and others find it extremely difficult to be honest with each other? Do you leave things out of tricky conversations – information you should be including? We see daily the evidence and debilitating consequences of educators tip–toeing around the truth rather than being honest with each other;

  • Do you know of someone who has attended professional learning on how to be honest? We see professional development providers offering to educators extensive programmes focusing on how to package a multitude of conversations – learning conversations, difficult conversations, courageous conversations and feedback conversations. If you are in a psychologically safe place what you will focus on is having the conversation – not learning what one is or how to package one. Joseph Grenny, a seminal thinker in this area notes, “Having spent a great deal of time urging people to improve the impact of their feedback by improving its packaging, I’ve been humbled to discover that we ought to spend time increasing the frequency than improving delivery.” It’s considerably easier to increase the frequency of honest conversation when those around you are honest with themselves. We don’t believe you need to attend professional development seminars to learn how to package conversations when the issue is about being honest with oneself;

  • Arguably the most important indicator reflecting the health of your school or centre is the time taken to deal with an issue after it’s emerged. When that lag is zero or as near to zero as possible, that’s about as healthy as you can get. In many schools/ centres the lag between identifying an issue such as a teacher’s performance and dealing with that issue can be weeks, months, terms and even years. Low levels of psychological safety creates decision paralysis.

  • Education is based on concern, care, support and nurture. Teaching attracts people who share these attributes. When many people in the same organisation share these attributes it becomes easy to avoid conflict. Why? Because everyone else does it. The most common theme when mentoring leaders and teachers in our experience is discomfort around conflict and the default position to avoiding it. This makes it extremely difficult to talk openly and honestly. To do so is not the school or centre norm and to do so would be a risk to one’s psychological safety.

 

In reality the dominant culture of schools or centres does not support openness and honesty. Research from the field of organisational psychology informs us how normal, logical and rational employees in most organisational settings value retaining relationships, minimising risks to one’s image and masking performance gaps more than being candid. Because teachers are no different, leaders we meet are finding it extremely challenging through the modelling of open and honest conversation, to transform school/centre culture. When teachers hold the beliefs outlined above, we believe it could take leaders years to create the psychologically safe environments they seek to create.

Appraisal Connector™ provides a circuit breaker, expediting the transformation process leaders seek to shift culture. It provides a platform upon which open honest conversations around teaching practice take place in non-threatening ways because the system makes it easy for teachers lead them, not leaders. The answer lies not in evaluating a teacher but developing systems simplifying for teachers the process of self-appraisal so they can lead their conversations honestly and openly.