You Gotta Learn
A psychologically safe environment is essential to teamwork and innovation
The theme of the 2012 Union Delegates Conference was “You Gotta Move”—and Amy Edmondson’s advice for the delegates was “you gotta learn.”
The Harvard Business School professor studies what she calls “learning environments.” To support innovation and teamwork, it’s essential the Labor Management Partnership and unit-based teams foster learning environments throughout Kaiser Permanente.
Imagine the ideal learning environment: People feel free to take risks. They feel psychologically safe. They believe they won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. “Without that kind of psychological safety, it’s very hard for an organization to learn,” says Edmondson.
Now imagine the opposite of a learning environment, one where no one speaks up. “Nobody ever got fired for being silent,” says Edmondson. “And yet many bad things happen as a result of silence. Silence is a strategy for individuals to stay safe, but not necessarily for patients to stay safe or for organizations to stay vibrant.”
Creating a learning environment is up to leaders—to those people with influence, whether or not they have a formal leadership role.
“Leaders have to go first,” Edmondson says. They “have to be willing to ask questions themselves, invite participation, acknowledge their own fallibility, and to explicitly state we don’t know everything yet.” These behaviors help an environment where others can take the risks of learning.
But, she cautions, “The learning environment doesn’t live at the ‘organization’ level. For the most part, there are pockets of learning environments.…In a large, complex system, answers don’t come from central headquarters or the CEO. The answers come from the people at the front line doing the work.”
A labor management partnership like the one at Kaiser Permanente “is an important foundation” for building a learning environment, says Edmondson. “A true partnership is completely consistent with the context for mutual learning.”
Both management and union UBT co-leads can help create a learning environment by articulating the unit’s or department’s purpose and goals “in a meaningful way that touches hearts and minds, that motivates and encourages,” she says.
They can—and must—also reduce the fear people experience that makes them reluctant to speak up. The LMP helps develop and support people, helping them be their best and most courageous, Edmondson says.