Stage 2: Learner Safety

May 19, 2023

Learner Safety is the Second Stage in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

Learner safety satisfies the basic human need to learn and grow. It allows us to feel safe as we engage in all aspects of the learning process--asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and even making mistakes, not if but when we make them. We all bring some level of inhibition and anxiety to the learning process. We all have insecurities. Who hasn’t hesitated to raise their hand to ask a question in a group setting for fear of feeling dumb? Learning is both intellectual and emotional. It’s an interplay of the head and the heart. When we sense learner safety, we’re more willing to be vulnerable, take risks, and develop resilience in the learning process. Conversely, a lack of learner safety triggers the self-censoring instinct, causing us to shut down, retrench and manage personal risk. When we create learner safety for others, we give encouragement to learn in exchange for a willingness to learn.

From Pennsylvania to California and from Bangalore to Manila, people from all industries joined us for our June 26, 2020 webinar on the second stage of psychological safety: Learner Safety.

In this webinar, Dr. Timothy R. Clark, CEO of LeaderFactor, shares how psychological safety and learning are directly correlated in the following agenda:

Introduction: The Imperative for Learning in the Global Age

1. Learner Safety

2. Learning as Intellectual and Emotional

3. Healing Emotionally Bruised Learners

4. Creating Aggressive, Self-Directed Learners

When it comes to learning, the imperative for all organizations is the same: to achieve learning agility. Learning agility is the ability to learn at or above the speed of change.

If learning agility is less than the speed of change, businesses, organizations, and individuals may fall into an obsolescence cycle, fall behind, become stagnant, and become irrelevant. So how do performing units achieve the imperative of learning agility?

Dr. Clark shares the single most important piece of advice he received from one of his professors at Oxford:

In essence, organizations are trying to achieve the same thing: Our job is to help our colleagues learn when they’re not in a formal structured learning environment. Today, the vast majority of the learning that we do is in the informal category, rather than the formal category, and most of it is self-directed.

1. Learner Safety

Psychological Safety is at the intersection of respect and permission:

Learner safety is the second stage of psychological safety where we feel safe to engage in all aspects of the discovery/learning process without fear of being embarrassed or marginalized.

POLL (1 is low, 10 is high):

  1. My team supports my efforts to learn.
  2. I’m allowed to learn from my mistakes.
  3. I feel comfortable asking questions.

As we introduce more risk into the learning process, we need more psychological safety in order to achieve learner safety.

2. Learning as Intellectual and Emotional

Albert Camus, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1918, wrote a handwritten note to a past grade school teacher:

“Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.”

In 1989, Oprah’s favorite fourth grade teacher Mary Dunkan made a surprise appearance on her show:

Oprah recounts her memory of running home the first day after fourth grade to tell her dad, “I had the best teacher anybody could ever have.” In both instances, Camus and Oprah acknowledged and thanked their teachers for cultivating learner safety in the classroom.

In the US, every 26 seconds, a student drops out of high school. When you dig into it, we realize that most of these students possess the cognitive ability to do the work. It’s not a matter of intellectual bandwidth. The reason they drop out is because they don’t feel the support/encouragement: They lose confidence, and they call it quits.

Because learning is both intellectual and emotional, we know that the cognitive and affective parts of the brain are interwoven and are inextricably bound together:

On the mode of performance spectrum, the more fear in a learning environment, the more learning impaired people become. Leaders have the stewardship to nurture an environment with high psychological safety in order to engage people into an offensive mode of performance and learning.


How do people push the fear button in the learning process? (21:08)

The primary obstacle to learning is not structural. It is behavioral. Until an organization shifts the behavioral norms and eliminates the fear buttons, learner safety is not unleashed in the environment. It all comes down to whether vulnerability is rewarded or punished.

When learning becomes expensive, we disengaged, de-censor, and we are in a defensive mode. The greater the learning risk, the more psychological safety is required for learning.

3. Healing Emotionally Bruised Learners

How do we help ourselves and others heal from emotional bruises? The primary way of healing emotionally bruised learners is neutralizing the self-censoring instinct by doing the following:

  1. Disconnect fear from failure and mistakes (25:56)
  2. Model vulnerability in learner risk (34:55)
  3. Encourage learning as the first mover (37:40)
  4. Ask workhorse questions to transfer critical thinking (28:41)

When asking workhorse questions, we ask questions that are high in the funnel.  The questions what, why, and how encourage critical thinking and high engagement in the learning process.

As a leader, your responsibility is to patrol the boundaries of respect.


How do you patrol the boundaries of respect? (41:00)

4. Creating Aggressive, Self-Directed Learners

How do we develop aggressive, self-directed learners? We engender a planned abandonment mentality: a mentality that assumes and anticipates the continuous loss of competitive advantage. Why?

Once we have a planned abandonment mentality, learning becomes critical.


What will your organization likely abandon during the next 6-12 months? Why?

Part of creating aggressive, self-directed learners is helping them develop searchlight intelligence: the ability to connect synthesize and interpret information about the organization from a variety of sources in order to see the big mosaic.

“There was a time when simply having certain information was a competitive advantage. Now, in the internet era, most people have easy access to the same information. That puts a greater premium on the ability to synthesize, to connect the dots in new ways and to ask simple questions that lead to untapped opportunities.”

  • Adam Bryant

TOOL #1 to Create Aggressive, Self-Directed Learners:


Ask your team the following questions:

  1. What is the #1 opportunity that we have right now?
  2. What is the #1 threat that we face as an organization right now?
  3. What is the #1 crisis that we face as an organization right now?

TOOL #2 to Create Aggressive, Self-Directed Learners:


1. Ask questions

2. Collect data

3. Recognize patterns

4. Reach conclusions

5. Make decisions


1. Where is your team vulnerable to group think?

2. What can you do to protect your team from this pattern?

Remember, the problems we don’t solve offensively we eventually have to solve defensively.


  1. In your book you wrote, “The most important signal in granting or withholding learner safety is the leader’s response to dissent and bad news.” Would you be willing to share a practical exercise that could be used in helping individuals practice responding productively to dissent and bad news? (56:54)
  2. Is there a place for the tell-end of the coaching continuum? (59:05)
  3. Does the macro-level environment affect psychological safety in organizations? Does something like COVID-19 affect the way we approach psychological safety in our teams? (1:00:32)

multiple covers of the behavior guide next to each other

Download 120+ Behaviors to Practice Psychological Safety

If psychological safety is the #1 variable in team performance, how do you improve it? This is a good place to start. With 120+ practical, specific behaviors, the Behavioral Guide will help you know what to start, what to stop, and how to infuse healthy interaction into your work life. It's the companion to The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Book. Download it today.

Download the Guide