Stage Two: Learner Safety

Stage 2 Learner Safety is is part two in our four part series based on Timothy R. Clark’s book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. In this episode Timothy R. Clark and Junior Clark answer key questions around how to create a culture where there is both encouragement to learn and engagement in the learning process.

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Episode Show Notes

Stage Two: Learner Safety is part two of our four-part series based on Timothy R. Clark’s book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. In this episode, Timothy R. Clark and Junior Clark answer key questions around how to create a culture where there is both encouragement to learn and engagement in the learning process.

This series is based on Timothy R. Clark’s book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.

You can purchase your copy here: The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

Or download a free excerpt here: The 4 Stages Book Excerpt

What is learner safety? (2:10)
Learner safety satisfies our basic need to learn and grow. We all engage in the learning process and in that process we engage in acts of vulnerability related to learning. A culture of learner safety means those acts of vulnerability are rewarded. Learner safety always precedes contribution and contributor safety.

What is the social exchange? (6:00)
The social exchange is "encouragement to learn in exchange for engaging in the learning process". Who goes first, the team or the individual contributor in the learning process. The leader and the team have a first mover responsibility to provide the encouragement to learn. You can't assume individuals show up ready to learn. The leader sets conditions and sets the tone and it cannot be delegated. We will never grow out of our need to have encouragement to learn. There will always be some trepidation in the learning process.

The organization has an imperative to drive "learning agility". (13:43)
Learning agility means you are learning at or above the rate of change. Without learning agility your organization will slowly become obsolete. Organizations are always becoming obsolete it's just a matter of the rate of the burn.

Examples of punished learner safety. (16:51)
Learning is both intellectual and emotional. When someone shuts down our learning process we don't forget. Instances of punished learning vulnerability have lasting effects, they trigger our self-censoring instinct, and shut down the learning process. When you take punished vulnerability to learning public it becomes a nuclear weapon.

How do you balance performance with mistakes? (26:23)
How do you make mistakes allowable as fuel for learning but eliminate mistakes when the stakes are high? The key is creating a place and a time where we have room to make mistake and having clear boundaries between the execution and innovation environments. There is a difference between being on the operating table and practicing on a dummy. First define the boundaries. 

A leader/teacher's job is to transfer critical thinking and accountability. (34:38)
In order to help transfer critical thinking to the learner you must ask questions. The three types of questions are the what, why, and how questions. Part of the answer of creating learner safety is to move away from didactic questions to questions that transfer critical thinking. Learner safety is not soft or enabling but it does require good faith and intent without ulterior motives.

High learner safety is correlated with innovation. (45:45)
One of the jobs of the leader is to oil the gears of collaboration. If individual contributors have high levels of learner safety they are more likely to explore new ideas, discover new solutions, and innovate faster than the rate of change. 

What is the role of the individual in learning process? (49:37)
You are primarily responsible for your own learning and develop. You cannot rely on your organization. It is your job to become an aggressive self-directed learner. If the organization can help you, that's great. Sometimes you will have more support and sometimes you will have less. You have to take responsibility. Without aggressive learning you have "retired while on the job".

Important Links from This Episode.

Episode Transcript

0:00:02.4 Producer: Welcome back Culture by Design listeners. This is Freddie, one of the producers of the podcast. Today's episode is part two in our four-part series on the four stages of psychological safety. Today is stage two, learner safety. If you haven't listened to part one, stage one, inclusion safety in the previous episode, don't worry. You don't have to have listened to that episode in order to understand this episode. However, we will link that episode in this episode's show notes, along with the links to the book, the four stages of psychological safety, and other relevant links to this episode. Today, Tim and Junior will talk about how to apply learner safety in the organization, on a team, and as an individual. They'll talk about learning agility and how to eliminate fear from mistakes. Thanks again for listening. Thank you for your support and your reviews. Enjoy today's episode on stage two, learner safety.

0:01:04.2 Junior: Welcome everyone to episode two of the four-part series of the four stages of psychological safety. Tim, thank you for joining me yet again for our second go at the four stages.

0:01:16.0 Tim: I'm excited we get to tackle stage two, learner safety. So thanks for having me. Absolutely.

0:01:23.2 Junior: Thank you for being here. For those of you who didn't get a chance to tune into the first episode, we would highly recommend that. Episode one of the four-part series was inclusion safety, stage one of the four stages. So today, as Tim mentioned, we're going to be talking about stage two, learner safety. And we've got a few topics, a few bullet points that we're going to talk about today that I'm very excited about. If you want to jump ahead or dive deeper into any of the content that we're talking about today, we would recommend the book, the four stages of psychological safety. Dr. Clark is the author. You probably know that already, but we are here to talk about all things, psychological safety and culture. Remember the title culture by design. So Tim, learner safety, give us a little sketch. What is learner safety?

0:02:15.2 Tim: Learner safety means that you feel free and able to engage in all aspects of the learning process without fear of being embarrassed or marginalized or punished in some way. So think about that. All aspects of the learning process. That means you're out there exploring and experimenting and discovering, and that's an essential part of life.

0:02:40.7 Tim: So that's what it means. You can do that. Now, what does it translate into? It translates into specific acts of vulnerability. So it always translates into behavior. So think for a minute about the behaviors that are associated with learning and experimenting and discovering and exploring. For example, we'd start with maybe asking a question. That's one of the most basic acts of learning vulnerability. Asking a question. Related to that would be asking for help, trying something new. And then it goes all the way to making a mistake. And there are a lot of other acts of learning vulnerability that you can think of. So what it means is that those behaviors, those acts of learning vulnerability will be rewarded, not punished.

0:03:38.2 Junior: So stage two. Why do you feel like this is stage two? Why does it come immediately after inclusion in the sequence?

0:03:45.8 Tim: Well, stage one is pretty intuitive. You come into a social collective and you want to be included. You want to be accepted. You want to have a sense of belonging. That's a basic human need that people want to satisfy. Now think for a minute. Just pause. What now? Okay, so we're here. We're organized into a team or an organization and we provide something. We do something. We have a reason to exist. We have a mission and a vision and a strategy. Well, how are you going to do that? You have to learn first. You have to acquire skills and experience and knowledge and competence. And then you can go contribute. So learning is the first thing that you have to do after you've come in and you have this sense of belonging and this inclusion safety stage one, you have to learn so that you can be a full-fledged member of the team. You can make a contribution. You can contribute value. So learning always precedes contribution. There's a natural sequence between stage two learner safety and stage three contributor safety.

0:05:01.6 Junior: So we'll be talking about contributor safety and challenger safety in the subsequent two episodes. I'm really excited about those stages. So today, if you hang with us through the end, we're going to be talking about the application of learner safety as an individual, both as teacher and as learner. And we're also going to be talking about the application to the organization at the macro level. What does this have to do with innovation and the ability for an organization to stay relevant in a highly dynamic environment, which we're seeing now? I don't want to say more than ever because there have been dynamic times, but it certainly is a dynamic time. There's a lot going on. And as we improve in learner safety, both as individuals and organizations, we'll be able to learn faster than the change curve. We'll be able to stay relevant and make sure that we're adapting to all of the things that are going on around us. So I want to start off this next section by talking about the social exchange. We talked about the social exchange for inclusion safety, which was respect. I invite you into my society, provided that you're human and you're not presenting me with harm.

0:06:10.1 Junior: That was a social exchange. And we called that an entitlement. This next social exchange is encouragement to learn in exchange for engagement in the learning process. Why is that the social exchange, Tim? And tell us a little bit about that.

0:06:27.1 Tim: Well, let's go to respect first. So respect in stage one, inclusion safety was my respect for you as a member of the human family. And you're entitled to that. Stage two is different. Stage two, respect is based on my acknowledgement and recognition that you have a need to learn and grow as an individual. So do you see how respect underwent a qualitative change? So I respect and acknowledge the fact that you have an innate need to learn and grow. So I'm acknowledging the human need that propels, that drives stage two learner safety. So based on that, then there's a social exchange that says, I will encourage you in the learning process in exchange for you engaging in the learning process. So we, as the team, we provide the encouragement for learning and you provide the engagement for learning. And it's that reciprocation. It's that social exchange that makes it work for stage two learner safety. So there's two parties, right? One who's teaching and one who's learning. It's not that straightforward, but in most instances you're going to be in one of those roles. So who goes first? Is it up to me as the learner to get in there, to dig in, start asking questions?

0:08:03.9 Junior: That seems pretty reasonable. Or an also reasonable argument would be that, you know, I, I don't know where to start. I am coming with some experience or whatever the case may be. So I can see arguments. Where do you, where do you fall on this?

0:08:19.8 Tim: That's a question that we asked ourselves as we were doing the research, who goes first? Is there some kind of moral obligation here? Is there some kind of responsibility or accountability? And very clearly it emerged that the team and the leader have a first mover obligation. Now why might that be? Think about it. If a person comes into your team as a new member, you cannot assume that that person arrives ready to learn. Often they're not ready. Maybe they don't have confidence. Maybe they don't have a sense of self-efficacy. Maybe they've come out of trauma. Maybe they don't know how to learn. There are several reasons why assuming that someone arrives on your team ready to learn is a bad assumption. And so what all of that says is that the leader and the team have a first mover obligation or responsibility to provide the encouragement. Because often you will have members of the team that are not ready to learn. They may be cognitively ready, but they may not be emotionally ready. And so they are therefore impaired as learners. And so if you think about organizations in the way that we function, we kind of assume, it's easy to assume that, oh, here's the new member of the team.

0:09:45.3 Tim: You're ready to go. Right out of the chute, you're ready to go. You're ready to learn. You're ready to contribute. You're ready to dig in. That's often not the case. And often people come from dysfunctional cultures, toxic cultures, where they were not learning. We don't know what the expectations were. We don't know what the norms were. We don't know what the values were. We don't know what kind of conditions they were subject to. All of that tells us that we have an obligation to encourage learning first and then try to nurture that person in the learning journey.

0:10:23.9 Junior: I want to spend some time here because it's counterintuitive. When we're onboarding a new team member, you're telling me that my assumption is probably that they're ready to go. They're joining my team. They're coming into the organization. They're going to be all ears, ready to jump in and begin. And you're saying that that's often not true.

0:10:45.9 Tim: It's often not true. And it also goes back to a premise, which is that the leader is responsible for conditions. In every single stage of psychological safety, the leader is responsible for conditions, primary responsibility. Now, do the other members of the team have a responsibility? Of course they do. But the leader has primary responsibility because the leader sets the tone. The leader has the greatest influence in forming the prevailing norms of that team. So we can't lose sight of that. The leader can never relinquish that responsibility to nurture those conditions and sustain those conditions that are conducive to learning. You can't delegate that. And if you try to delegate it, you're going to get in trouble.

0:11:32.1 Junior: So we talked about last week that we experience as humans the inclusion safety or lack of it from the time that we enter this earth and to the end when we leave it. Is that the same for learner safety or is that a certain period of our life? Do we grow out of it?

0:11:56.5 Tim: I don't think we grow out of it, Junior. I don't think we grow out of it. Here's why. Regardless of what you achieve and regardless of what you learn, you always bring some level of fear and anxiety and inhibition to the learning process. And that never goes away. Now it may be reduced significantly, but it never completely goes away because learning means that you're moving from the known to the unknown. There's some trepidation associated with that that never goes away. Never quite. And that's probably a good thing. So I think it stays with us. Now, some people become very competent and very capable and that's fantastic, but I'll tell you what, I can't tell you how many executive teams that I've worked with and they're just as scared to raise their hand and ask a question as anyone else. Why? Because especially think about it. If you're in a senior leadership position, what do people expect? They expect you to be competent. They expect you to be knowledgeable. They expect you to be experienced. They expect you to have superb judgment and understanding and wisdom. So you don't want to expose the fact that you don't have all of that.

0:13:14.3 Tim: And of course you don't. So you can see the turmoil and the conflict and the misgivings that this creates in the heads and the hearts of leaders. I shouldn't, you know, should I ask a question? And so when they're with their peers, you watch an executive team when they're, when they're with each other, they can be very guarded, very careful, and they don't have the learner safety that they need to have. So we got to work on this. Now, let me just go back Junior to what you said. Let's zoom out to the macro level and let's think about learning. What is the imperative? What is the organization's imperative when it comes to learning? It is to develop learning agility. What is learning agility to learn at or above the speed of change? That's the imperative. It can't be anything less than that because anything less than that puts you at risk of becoming irrelevant, puts you into an obsolescence cycle. So your goal is always learning agility to learn at or above the speed of change. So we have that, that's guiding us. And then we break it down and we say, well, what do I need to do at an individual level?

0:14:31.3 Tim: And what do we need to do at a team level to make that happen? How does that become real? And this is where learning agility comes into play. You have to operationalize the concept of learner safety. And if you don't create conditions that stimulate and reward the members of the team in the learning process, you can't get there. You get part of the way there, but you're not going to get close to the potential of that team. So in order for the team to reach its potential, they need to learn at or above the speed of change.

0:15:08.7 Junior: Is it just didactic? Is it textbook learning? Is it skills? Is there another component? Because we don't do this well, right? Many of us don't do this well. Many teams and organizations don't do this well. So is it because they have bad information? Is it because they have poor systems? Informationally, they're not getting good data. Why do we fail?

0:15:35.9 Tim: Well, our systems are better than ever. Our technology systems anyway, right? I think the short answer is we shut each other down. We shut each other down in the learning process. We trigger each other's instinct to self-censor. We trigger that self-censoring instinct in each other. And then what do we do? We recoil. We withdraw. Junior, you've got examples in your own professional experience and your own educational experience from when you're young all the way through. It doesn't change, right? So we go from very didactic to very interactive. I mean, just reflect on it in your own life.

0:16:17.2 Junior: Yeah. It makes me think about some of the experiences you mentioned that I've had educationally, professionally. And it's part of my motivation for the question, like, do we grow out of this? Because I've seen this vulnerability inside learning from the time I was very young to very recently. And it does not seem like this is something that's going to expire. Like the vulnerability in learning is going to expire at some point. I remember in third, I think it was third grade. And I don't remember how old you are when you're in third grade, eight or nine. And I was in school and I went and asked my teacher, I had heard this word, someone said this word and it was the word deteriorate. I heard this word. I'm nine. What nine year old is interested in a word like that? I don't know. But I went up to my teacher and I said, hey, how do you spell deteriorate? I'm nine. This was not, there was no weird motivation behind my question. I wanted to know how to spell this word. My teacher looked at me and said, you don't even know that word, let alone needing to know how to spell it.

0:17:28.5 Junior: She didn't ever tell me how to spell it. So I remember being nine. I asked the question, I'm nine years old. And so I remember thinking, huh? Okay. Looking back, maybe she didn't know how to spell it, but it was funny because I just went and sat down, right? Yeah.

0:17:47.3 Tim: She didn't give you the answer. She said, don't worry about it.

0:17:50.0 Junior: Yeah. And guess how many times I asked her to help me with another word? Zero. Not ever again. And it makes me think, okay, if that happens to you, and by and large, I had fantastic educational experiences, but it makes me wonder about those who aren't so fortunate to have the majority of the experiences be positive. What if you have that type of interaction with a teacher or someone just in a teaching role, it could be a parent, it could be friends, peers, it could be an actual teacher, professor, a manager. If you're consistently exposed to that type of punished vulnerability, what happens? I was looking into this and we've talked about this before that in the United States, every 26 seconds, someone in high school drops out. And for us, that's in the United States between 15, 14, and 14 to 17, 18 years old. They're dropping out. They're quitting every 26 seconds. Does that have to do with learner safety or do they just have poor teaching, bad information?

0:19:08.4 Tim: I think it does. Well, there could be some poor teaching, but now it goes back to the case study that you gave from your own experience, Junior. When the teacher responded to you that way, the teacher shut down discovery. But how did the teacher shut down discovery? It was an emotional shutdown. It was not an intellectual shutdown. But what happened is because the thinking brain and the feeling brain are connected and cannot be separated in the learning process, you said, I'm not going to ask her anymore. I'm done. No more discovery with that teacher. You're done. You're finished. She triggered your self-censoring instinct. You withdrew and it's over. So think about high school students. And by the way, it's interesting. The pattern is very much the same where they don't have the encouragement. They don't have the support. They are not consistently rewarded for their acts of learning vulnerability. So eventually they lose confidence. They lose motivation and they call it quits. That's what's happening. That is a tragedy because the vast majority of those students, they could do the work. They could do the academic work. That's not beyond them. It's not a cognitive issue, barring some legitimate learning disability, but it's not a cognitive issue.

0:20:39.2 Tim: It is a cultural issue, an interpersonal issue, an emotional issue, a psychological issue. That's what it is. We've all had experiences like that.

0:20:49.9 Junior: And I know the questions that I've been asking down this vein have been somewhat loaded, but it's to make the point that it's not about the information that we have access to.

0:21:00.5 Junior: It's about the culture that surrounds the information we have access to. That it's an emotional process just as much, if not more than it is a cognitive process. Yet we often think about those two latter things. We think about the information itself and we don't look at what surrounds it. We think about the cognitive ability and not the emotional ability that surrounds it. And so it's fascinating to me. And a lot of these patterns I'm seeing across the stages that we talk about in some of the examples is we give attention to those things that come downstream that are perhaps easier to measure, that are perhaps more quantifiable and gold against. Yet there are these soft areas that are more subjective and in many cases arguably more important. And so the dropout epidemic is something that's fascinating to me because as you say, most have the ability to do the work, yet they don't. They decide not to. And the alternative, it's not like they're blind to the alternative. Some might be more than others, but what's the alternative to continuing and finishing? It's bleak, yet some are deciding that that's the best route. And it makes me think about professionally how much of this is also happening.

0:22:32.3 Junior: How many drop out, for lack of a better word, and decide I'm not going to continue to pursue this. I'm going to lay low. I'm going to go under the radar. I'm not going to ask questions. And many have found themselves in that situation because of their lived experience. Maybe they were in high school, asked the question and it was punished. Maybe they made it through, but somehow they are feeling the period effects of some of this past experience. It makes me think about third grade. Then I go into fourth grade. The teacher doesn't know my experience in third grade, much like the manager receiving a new cohort does not know where they came from or what happened. Yet they're still responsible to provide an environment conducive to my learning. So it makes all the sense in the world to me thinking through my own experience that coming into a new environment, I may be a little bit timid. I may have some trepidation, a little bit of apprehension before I really dig in.

0:23:36.2 Tim: Yeah. So when you went to fourth grade, can that teacher assume that you're ready to learn? No, because you were shut down. Now let's take your example though, Junior, I want to add something to it. So you went to your teacher and you asked your teacher in kind of a private moment, what does deterioration mean and how do you spell it? Well, what if, let's just take it a step further. What if that teacher would have responded that way, giving you the same response, but publicly? Now I want you to think about this and I want all the listeners to think about this. So now let's take it public. When you take punished vulnerability to learning public, it becomes a nuclear weapon. It's unbelievable the devastation that you will do because now you've brought in public humiliation. So now it's an exponential impact versus a private conversation.

0:24:37.2 Junior: Think about how much we care about the social impact. We care very much about the social impact. That's a great point.

0:24:45.7 Tim: Yeah. Especially when you're already dealing with the insecurities of being a human being. Let's just go back. The universal condition of the human family is insecurity and that is acute and pronounced when you're young. Well, it's very strong when you're young, but then think about when you get into junior high and high school, unbelievable off the charts. Right? And so think about how important learner safety is during those years. It can make or break the person because your act of learning vulnerability has never met with a neutral response. It's either rewarded or punished. Something's going to come back to you. And if it's rewarded and it's consistently rewarded, then those inhibitions, they fall away little by little. The fear, the anxiety, it goes away and you jump in. And even when you make a mistake, you're okay with that. Right? I give the example in the book of this brilliant high school calculus teacher. And what does he say to the students? Mistakes are not the exception. They are the expectation. And what does he do? He creates a norm where he disconnects fear from failure. He disconnects the two. If you make a mistake, he'll start clapping.

0:26:13.1 Tim: Hey, let's give you a hand. This is fantastic because this is the way to progress. I mean, that's amazing. Can you create those norms? Yes, you can.

0:26:22.1 Junior: So what do we do then? He claps for failure, but we don't want just failure. We need progress. We do want right answers. Right? So how do we balance those two things? Because that's a huge part of learner safety is making mistakes allowable. Yet, we don't want to jeopardize in a significant way what we're doing. So there's some risk there. And I think that's one of the things that people have the hardest time reconciling is this dichotomy, which is we want high performance and we want close to no mistakes, especially when the risks are high. Yet, we know that mistakes are fuel for learning. So how do we balance those two? What's your take on that?

0:27:13.4 Tim: So Junior, I think to help us understand that, let's talk about your team. So you run product, you run technology. So talk to us a little bit about how we build software and what's the environment. And then we bring it over and we go live. Just go through that because then let me make some comments on that.

0:27:33.9 Junior: Yeah, that's a good question. So we have a stage environment. We have a production environment. And what we put in those two places is very different. So in our production environment, we want no mistakes, none, zero, no mistakes. The tolerable number is zero. And so past that number, we have a real problem in the sandbox environments, staged environments. The allowance goes up where we're trying new things. We're tweaking. It's funny that you ask because the expectation almost is that there is something wrong. That's the default is that when we're working on some of these issues, we're creating a new feature set. We're trying out a new idea. It would be stupid of us to expect that there'd be no errors because, okay, well, how are we going to come up with something innovative? How are we going to come up with something new and creative and fresh? Mistakes are the way you learn. It's the raw material. You're in discovery. Yet, there's still this there's a place where the tolerance goes down. So they're different environments, I suppose. So from a product perspective, that would be my answer is there's a place and a time where we're expecting those mistakes and that fuels the innovation.

0:29:03.2 Junior: And yet there's this other environment where we were past that stage and hopefully have got to a place where it's refined enough. And yet even then we know that, I don't know, maybe this is arguable, but every once in a while you almost wonder if there are no mistakes ever in that environment, if you're really pushing the envelope enough. I don't know.

0:29:26.4 Tim: That's a really good point. That's a really good point. So I think, Junior, your function is a vivid illustration of what we need to think about. And so if we apply that to the broader organization, we can make the distinction between execution and innovation. And execution is delivering value today. Innovation is figuring out how we're going to deliver value tomorrow. Why does this matter? Because on the innovation side of the ledger, that's where we do explore. That's where we do experiment. That's where we do discover. That's where we learn from mistakes. It's the raw material. That's the intent. But when we move over to execution, the stakes are incredibly high and we're trying to eliminate unforced human error. So one of the things that we don't do well in many organizations is make this distinction and then clarify the boundaries and the parameters for making mistakes and saying, let's do it. This is what we're trying to do. But now we're coming over to execution. So we're going to lock it down. We're going to try to be as flawless as possible. Now we won't be completely, and we're still going to learn a lot over on the execution side, but we need to just clarify and we need to create conditions and an environment where we can make mistakes and everyone's invited to participate.

0:31:00.3 Tim: We don't do that well in a lot of organizations. People don't understand the difference. Oh, I'm doing innovation. Oh, I'm doing execution. Okay. I have latitude for bounded error over here. Over here, the stakes are high. The margin of error is low and we're going to try to not make very many mistakes. So we need to clarify that like software.

0:31:24.0 Junior: Yeah. Like software. It's fascinating that you asked that as the example, because it's so cut and dried and it makes so much sense when you talk about it in that environment and translating it into other applications becomes more difficult. But there are a lot of analogies. You can think about the difference between batting practice and being at the plate during the championship game, the difference between being in a simulator and an actual F18, like the difference between being in working on a dummy and being in live heart surgery. Like there are times and places for the mistakes and for the learning to occur and to push the envelope. And there are times where we really can't have much tolerance, if any, for mistakes. And I think that's also true with speed. Wouldn't you say? If speed is one of the variables we're optimizing for, if we need to move quickly and also execute well, then that's probably not the time.

0:32:26.8 Tim: That's right. Yeah. We don't have room for that. But we need to clarify this in organizations. We need to do a better job because there's too much ambiguity and people don't understand. Are we discovering? Are we exploring? Can I learn? They don't realize that. And yet, innovation is part of everyone's job as execution is. And so that means that they need to be a part of asking questions, coming up with a hypothesis, helping to build a prototype, testing it, seeing what happens, iterating, refining, doing it again. That's everybody's job to some extent, even if it's just little things.

0:33:07.3 Tim: I really like that idea of defining the boundaries. And I see application for it both on the teaching side and learning side. So if you're on the teaching side, I think that makes a lot of sense to say, hey, here are the boundaries. But if the boundaries aren't clear to you, let's say you're an individual contributor and you're not in charge of the dynamic, you influence the dynamic, but it's not your primary responsibility, probably still useful for you to ask explicitly about the boundaries. Is this an area where I can take a chance or is this an area where we can't do that? I haven't thought about that before, but that might be an interesting thing to try out.

0:33:49.8 Tim: Another application, Junior, as you know, I was in manufacturing early in my career, and this is where safety is of the utmost importance. And so when it comes to following a safe job procedure, just for example, we want no deviation. We want no variance. Why? Because people's lives are at stake. And so there are environments and applications and use cases where we need precision and we're not in discovery. We're not in discovery, we're in production.

0:34:24.0 Tim: And that's a very different thing. I just think we need to be clear about that. Now, another distinction that I want to maybe come back to a little bit, and that is so many of us have grown up in didactic environments where people are telling us what to do all the time. And it's just tell, tell, tell, tell, tell. And that's so dangerous because we become conditioned to be passive and we're not transferring the critical thinking responsibility to the people. How do you transfer critical thinking responsibility to your colleagues, to the people that you work with? You do it through questions. You catalyze the process with questions. And there are three main questions that transfer most of the critical thinking. The what question, the why question, and the how question, those three. Those three questions do an enormous amount of work. They shift massive amounts of critical thinking. And so part of the answer here for creating higher levels of learner safety is to move from the didactic to the interactive, to the collaborative enterprise, to the cooperative system. And that's hard for a lot of managers and leaders that have been doing this a while.

0:35:54.5 Tim: It's hard for a legacy culture. It's hard for incumbent leaders to do this. They've been conditioned with a different model. And yet there are catastrophic consequences that can result from staying in the comfort zone of a didactic environment. One of which is, let me just, I'll just bring up one. One of which is just the assumption of alignment, right? We keep talking and talking and telling and telling, and then we say, has everybody got it? And everybody nods their heads. You have no earthly idea if people have it. They're just nodding their heads. So the assumption of alignment is so unbelievably dangerous. But in a didactic environment, that's how it works. We talk and talk and talk, and then we say, okay, are we all in sync? Do we all understand? Okay, ready, break. And then we go out and we are misaligned. And we have all kinds of unintended consequences. Does this not happen a lot?

0:37:00.8 Junior: It happens a lot. And I think we're all guilty of it too. In an effort to save time, to do whatever it is we're trying to do, we skip that part. Because we know sometimes we're opening a can of worms. And we ask that question and move on very quickly. Everybody good? Excellent. We don't want to know the answer. So we're going to be willfully blind and it's okay. But here's a principle that relates to that. The problems that we do not solve offensively, we will ultimately have to solve defensively. Most of the problems that we encounter, they don't go away. They stay and they stay with us and then they compound over time. And so we're trying to be offensive, but it goes right back to, I need to transfer critical thinking responsibility to my people. I need more learner safety. How can I do that? How didactic or collaborative am I? How do I respond to acts of learning vulnerability? There's a whole set of diagnostic questions that we can ask ourselves about the environment and the conditions that we're creating. And we should.

0:38:15.9 Junior: You talked about manufacturing. Tell us a little bit more about your experience at Oxford that preceded that. I'd be interested to hear a little bit more about that because many of us don't know what that environment is like such an historical institution with such long history. I'm interested to hear what was that like showing up in that type of performance environment? What was expected of you? How does an institution that's been around for so long, have they figured out a few things? Is it archaic? Help me understand how that works.

0:38:55.9 Tim: For me, initially anyway, it was intimidating because when I got there, the first week, all of the new doctoral students went to a meeting and we had the vice chancellor speak to us. At Oxford, the vice chancellor is essentially the president of the university. And he said a bunch of things. I can't remember anything he said except for the end. He said, for those of you who are pursuing the doctorate, two out of three of you will fail or quit. And this was very intimidating for me. There was a big part of me that just wanted to go back to Heathrow, get on a plane, go home. And that's probably not an unreasonable feeling. You're here at an institution that's been around for a thousand years and the expectations are exceedingly high. But fortunately, they assigned to me an advisor, a wonderful gentleman, Arthur Stockman. And the first time I met him, he said, well, I'm here to help you be successful. I'm here to help you on the journey. And I know about the journey. I know what it's like. I know where the quicksand is. I know how to help you be ready. I know how to help you be successful as we go from milestone to milestone.

0:40:18.0 Tim: And I'm not going to be easy on you. I want you to know that. And don't take it personally, but I'm just trying to help you be successful. And he was true to his word. And back then I would submit papers to him in hard copy and he would return those papers dripping with red ink. That's how we did it in those days. And it was very frustrating. And sometimes I would come back with a paper dripping in red ink and I'd be absolutely just exasperated. But I could not be mad at him. I could not be even frustrated with him because I knew what he was doing. I knew what his intent was. I knew he was trying to help me. So you can see that learner safety is not soft. It's not soft. He's not enabling me. He's trying to help me be successful.

0:41:12.1 Junior: And so he did. It's the first time you mentioned intent. We haven't talked about that today. What does intent have to do with it? Because it seems like your tolerance for his critique went up because you knew he cared. Is that fair?

0:41:28.8 Tim: Yeah, it's absolutely fair. And what that does is it, the intent, think about what the intent does in the heart and the mind of the student. The intent builds resilience. The intent erases or removes fragility. He was not trying to overprotect me. I wasn't fragile, but he needed to build more resilience in me. So if I know his intent, then he paves the way for me to create and develop more resilience in the process. Intent means everything. He's not self-serving. His motive is pure. It's clean. There's good faith. He's trying to help me be successful. Think about what that does to a colleague. There's no ulterior motive when they're genuinely there to help you. Now, contrast that with the professor that's in front of the room that's asking a question and someone raises their hand and gives a response and the professor jumps on them and ridicules them in public and says, that's a dumb answer. How could you say that?

0:42:47.1 Junior: I've literally heard that. I've heard almost verbatim. Man, thinking about your comment from before about publicity. So think about a lecture hall with 600 people in it. You raise your hand, proffer an answer, or ask a question.

0:43:10.4 Junior: And I remember hearing, that may be one of the stupidest questions I have ever heard. So think about it for a second and decide if you want to ask it again. And ice is the entire room. The hand goes down and the professor continues. And in five seconds tells everyone there that questions are not welcome. At least that's the short answer. That's what we all took away from it. Because are you going to venture a question after that?

0:43:47.9 Tim: What's the intent? I'm the erudite standing on the stage. What is this really about? What's the intent? It's self-serving.

0:44:00.2 Junior: It doesn't seem to be about teaching.

0:44:01.7 Tim: No, it's not. It's an indulgence is what it is. So we have to think very carefully about intent. Is your intent clean? Are you there to help get yourself out of the way, let go of those ego defense mechanisms? This is not easy. This is where humility really pays great dividends.

0:44:25.0 Junior: So I think one of my takeaways from this piece of our conversation is that, and maybe this is just for me personally, but the level of critique is not necessarily correlated with the level of learner safety. And perhaps if intense there may be inversely correlated. It could be inversely. Where you've developed so much rapport, you have such good intent, or you have so much confidence that the person on the other side has so much good intent that you're willing to tolerate the critique because you understand that it's in your best interest. And I think that that's pretty interesting because it probably means that the pace or the acceleration of the learning increases and probably results in better outcomes down the road. So let's take this back to the organization and talk about this at the macro level because we've been discussing the application at the personal level, both as student and teacher.

0:45:30.5 Junior: And realize I use those terms loosely. We're students and teachers all over the place through all walks of life, times of life. And so student teachers just to help us identify that relationship. But we go back to the organization and out in the distance past the mountains lies obsolescence for an organization. And it may be a mile away or it might be 100 feet away. And that distance gets shorter as we learn below the change curve. So change is bringing that obsolescence closer to us. And we're trying to push it farther away. And so to me, the learning capacity, the learning speed of an organization is based on the learning speed or capacity of its members. It always boils down to the level of the individual. So let's say that we start to get this individual piece right and it starts to roll up. So if we do that at scale and we put in the cultural systems necessary, we have people the tone at the top is healthy and we're modeling good behavior. We're outpacing that change curve. We're pushing the obsolescence out farther into the horizon. And we're probably doing a lot of innovation.

0:46:56.2 Junior: It's fair to say, it seems to me that high learner safety is correlated very tightly with innovation. You think that that's true at an organizational level?

0:47:08.8 Tim: It is because you as the leader, your job is to continually oil the gears of collaboration. And if those gears are well oiled and the interaction is high functioning, then you're going to outpace the competition. There's no question. It really comes down to that. So think about it. Your management context, you're trying to draw your people out. You're not trying to shut them down. You're trying to draw them out. It's not your theater. This is a laboratory, at least on the innovation side. And then of course you got to go to the execution side, but you see how mixed up we get. We get really mixed up.

0:47:53.5 Junior: But it makes sense though. It makes sense that we would get mixed up. You can see how we would get mixed up. And like most things we talk about, it's much easier said than done. And there are reasons we do the things that we do, but you can see the repercussions. You can see the ripple effects and you can see how far reaching some of the consequences are when you do this well and you do this poorly. And it makes me think how if those are some things that we've talked about to create high learner safety, what are some things that we can do to create low learner safety? If we want to flip it on its head, then what do we do? We probably inspire fear. We probably criticize people publicly if we have the opportunity. We probably tolerate no mistakes in any venue, be it innovation or execution. We probably focus exclusively on execution. And the list goes on. You can see all the things that we can do to reduce learner safety are things that we often do. And maybe it's inadvertent. Probably it's inadvertent for the most part. But we do a lot of things that perhaps unbeknownst to us are eroding or corroding the learner safety that we have.

0:49:09.0 Tim: And then the net impact of that Junior over time. Well, and it's a combination. It's a combination of the culture that leadership creates and also the norms, the learning norms to which the individual subscribe. But over time, we also see patterns of passivity where the individual has not become an aggressive, self-directed learner. That's their responsibility. So let's talk about that for a minute. What is the responsibility of the individual, the member of the team, the individual contributor, whatever your role might be? Well, even if you're a manager, it doesn't matter. It's the same. Your responsibility is to become an aggressive, self-directed learner. You are primarily responsible for your own learning and development. The organization plays a secondary role. Your colleagues, resources, it's all secondary. You take the primary role. You cannot rely on the organization to do that. So the danger is that we socialize this pattern of passivity and people just respond when they're asked to do something. And other than that, they're on a compliance track. They're not on a commitment track. They're learning disposition. They're learning habits. They're learning behaviors. They're learning patterns are passive and reactive. Think about what that does to an organization when you aggregate employees and they're exhibiting that pattern.

0:50:47.3 Tim: Devastating to the organization. You're responsible to assess the gaps between your current competency and where you need to be. You identify the gaps and then you move forward to close those gaps. That's your responsibility. Now, if the organization can help you with resources and support in different ways, that's fantastic. Sometimes you're going to have a lot of support. Sometimes you won't. Just expect a little bit of both. But your responsibility is to be 100% accountable for your own learning and development. And if you have that attitude and that mindset, you will eventually, you'll develop the patterns of an aggressive, self-directed learner. Anything beyond that, I mean, how do you make a case for anything other than that? Standing still is career suicide. Even limping along is career suicide today in these highly dynamic, hyper competitive, unforgiving environments. How do you defend that? How do you defend anything other than being an aggressive, self-directed learner? I don't know how you do it. Not in today's world.

0:52:02.3 Junior: There's also no satisfaction that comes from staying still. If you stay still and wait for the organization to push you along, they may never come to push you along.

0:52:13.0 Junior: You can find yourself stagnant for a long, long time. And I see that rolls up through organizations and you see this obsolescence come nearer and nearer and eventually it bites you. And I think a lot of it has to do with what you're describing, especially at the enterprise level. It's interesting because at that level, depending on where you are and it varies, but that's where most of the resource lies and a lot of the formal programs exist. And so the pressure, the external pressure that comes almost out of necessity to learn to stay relevant, that goes away. And so you can lean increasingly on the organization and its development programs and whatever else exists. But if you do that, you do that at your peril. So it's somewhat ironic that the pace of learning slows when the resource to support the learning increases and we lose some of that scrappiness. That's an interesting consideration.

0:53:14.2 Tim: No, I was just going to say, I love the fact that you use the word scrappy because that's what we're talking about. How many people do I know that have retired on the job that are stagnant and sterile and stale.

0:53:26.4 Tim: Inertia has overcome them. Many people are in that situation, but they're responsible to push that aside and to keep learning and to keep growing. And they have every incentive to do it because their fulfillment, their satisfaction, their productivity, their success, their level of engagement, all of those rewards come as a result of continuing the learning process. And that takes me back to, I don't know if I mentioned it, but one of the professors I had at Oxford, he gave me the single best piece of advice that I had or that anyone gave. He said, the most important thing you can learn in school is how to learn when you get out of school. It's not some fact or theory or principle or that, and that has proved to be true. The most important thing you can learn in school is how to learn when you get out of school so that for the rest of your life, both in personal life and professional life, you're progressing. You've become, you literally, you have become an aggressive self-directed learner. You informally, you give yourself your own curriculum, you identify your gaps, and you're always moving forward. You're getting a little bit better every day.

0:54:50.9 Junior: Yeah. It makes me wonder how far would you have made it if outside your academic career, you learn nothing. You wouldn't have made it very far.

0:55:00.7 Tim: No, you're done. Yeah. There's no such thing as permanent qualification. There's nothing like that. You've got to keep moving forward. That's how it works.

0:55:16.8 Junior: As we talked about in the beginning, the social exchange, encouragement to learn in exchange for engagement in the learning process. That engagement in the learning process is each of our responsibilities, regardless of what's on the other side. The onus lies with us to become better, to become more skilled, to identify those gaps, as you mentioned, and close them. I think that that's enough for today. We could go on for a few more hours, couldn't we?

0:55:43.2 Tim: Yeah. But I do want to underscore one thing, and that is that your knowledge, your skills, your experience, your competence, it's all portable. You get to take it with you. Your operating assumption should be sometimes you're going to have a good leader, a good boss. Sometimes you're going to have a poor leader or a poor boss. Sometimes you're going to have a lot of resources and a lot of support for your learning. Sometimes you're not. There's no surprise about that. It's going to be an experience that weaves through both of those kinds of environments. Sometimes it's great. Sometimes it's not so great. What are you going to do about it? You've got to take ownership for the learning process. And hopefully, the leaders will take ownership for creating high levels of stage two learner safety so that you can really accelerate.

0:56:33.3 Junior: There are a couple of things I want to mention as we wrap up today. If you would like a longer list of behaviors to help model to improve learner safety, we've got an entire behavioral guide that is free. So we'll put a link to that in the show notes and make sure that you have access to that. But that's quite a comprehensive list of behaviors. I think there are more than 130 across each of the four stages that you can rely on and lean on a little bit if you want to improve learner safety. If you liked today's episode, we would also encourage you to subscribe if you haven't already and share this with a colleague that you think might find it relevant. That helps us out tremendously. So if you're a fan of the content and would like to support us in continuing to do these episodes, that would help us out a ton. Be sure to tune in next week to stage three contributor safety as part three of the four part series. We're excited to talk about that one. So Tim, thank you for your time and being with us today. Really appreciate it.

0:57:36.5 Tim: Yeah, thanks, Junior. Appreciate the discussion. It was excellent.

0:57:39.6 Tim: All right. Take care, everyone. We'll see you next time. Bye bye. Thanks for joining me today on the Culture by Design podcast. Be sure to subscribe and listen to new episodes every week. And if you'd like to see more of the work we're doing, go to

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Episode Transcript

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