A outline of the number two with the text stage to the left, stage 2.

Learner Safety

Am I Growing?

What is Learner 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.

When you have it

When we sense leaner 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.

Learning is Both Intellectual & Emotional.

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.

Thinking vs Feeling Brain equation

Detach Fear from Mistakes.

Learning involves risk. One of the most important things that you can do to build Learner Safety is to create an environment in which you detach fear from mistakes. You break them apart, you divorce them, so fear is no longer naturally associated with mistakes. If you are really trying, there should be no stigma, no shame, and no embarrassment associated with mistakes or failure. They are simply stepping-stones. We should reward failure because it’s not failure; it’s progress.

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Stepping stones in the middle of small stream
Vintage photo of King

Regardless of Title, Everyone Plays a Role in the Learning Process.

A leader can maintain a culture of learning only if he or she consistently minimizes vulnerability through a consistent pattern of positive emotional response. How the leader of an organization reacts to dissent and bad news is a clear indicator of Learner Safety.

Leaders who cultivate learner safety never let hierarchy get in the way. CEO’s and C-level executives are not excused from participating in the learning process. It’s the responsibility of the leaders of the team to model effective and engaged learning.

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Learner Safety is a
Competitive Advantage.

Leaders committed to safeguarding Learner Safety understand that learning is where the competitive advantage comes from. If an organization ceases to learn it will cease to innovate. A competitive cycle is a learning cycle. Either learn to maintain competitiveness or face the grave risk of irrelevance.

Diverse office team in conference meeting watching female presenter

Do You Practice Learner Safety?

It’s time to take a step back and look at your own life. Ask yourself these questions and evaluate how you are doing to create Learner Safety around you.

  • Does your team punish failure? Do you punish failure?
  • Do you model vulnerability in your own learning?
  • Do you encourage the other members of your team to take learning risks?
  • When you start working with new people, do you judge their aptitude immediately or do you suppress that impulse?
  • When was the last time you created a nurturing learning environment for another person's curiosity and motivation?
  • How can you lower the barrier of learner anxiety to the point that the most inhibited and fearful member of the team will come forward and engage?
  • Do you demonstrate an aggressive, self-directed learning disposition?
  • Do you embrace a humble, learning mindset?
  • Do you show an ability to learn from anyone, regardless of rank or influence?
  • Do you model this enthusiasm for learning to your team?
A outline of the number two with the text stage to the left, stage 2.

Concrete Behaviors That Create Learner Safety at Work.

It’s not enough to understand Learner Safety; you must put concrete behaviors into practice. These behaviors are examples of how you can increase Learner Safety. You may not be doing anything to reduce Learner Safety, but what can you do to really build it?

1. Make learning a collaboration, not a competition.
Learning shouldn’t be a divisive competition. Yes, you can create good-natured learning competitions that are fun, but don’t allow the learning process to divide people and pit them against each other in unhealthy ways. If learning becomes a win/lose competition on your team, if people perceive it that way, the highly competitive people will be anxious to play, but those who don’t will opt out. That can have a devastating impact on your team’s overall ability to perform. Help your team understand that learning is both an individual process and a collaborative process. Create the expectation that they have a responsibility to help their colleagues learn. A simple way to cultivate this norm on your team is to invite the members of your team to intentionally help one person learn each day. You can reinforce this expectation every time you have a team meeting. After you get some momentum and experience doing this, ask your team members to share examples of how they helped or were helped in the learning process. Remember, make learning a collaboration, not a competition.

2. Adopt a learning mindset.
The concept of a student implies that we are learning and never arrive at a place where we have learned it all. This is the mindset we want to adopt so that we don’t get arrogant or complacent in our learning. A learning mindset implies a certain humility in our attitude about learning. When you adopt this mindset, even though you may be an expert in your field, you’re eager to learn from others. Some people have the opposite attitude. They develop a superiority complex and real arrogance because they are good at what they do. Isn’t that irritating? Who wants to collaborate with an expert whose chief impulse is to tell the world how smart he or she is? Those are the people you don’t want on your team. They want credit and they want air time. It’s exhausting! Help your team members understand that although they may become skilled and develop expertise in their domains of responsibility, we are always learning and will never arrive at a place of permanent competency. Ask yourself these questions: Do you embrace a humble, learning mindset? Do you show an ability to learn from anyone, regardless of rank or influence? Do you model this enthusiasm for learning to your team?

3. Assess the learning style and disposition of each person.
Each of the members of your team has a different learning style and disposition. Some are visual learners. Some like to learn alone. Some like to learn out loud. Some are self-directed. Some hate classrooms, but love to learn on the job. Your task is to understand the learning patterns of each individual on your team. You can do this by observing them and also by interviewing them and asking them about their learning preferences. Remember, part of your stewardship as a leader is to encourage and enable the learning of each member of your team. You can’t do that effectively with a one-size-fits-all factory approach. People have vastly different learning styles and dispositions. To help each member of your team accelerate their learning, you need to know how they learn best. Sometimes, they don’t even know, so you may be on a journey of joint discovery with them. Once you find out how the members of your team learn best, help them set some learning and development goals and personalize their learning as much as you can. For example, I had a member of my team who couldn’t focus long enough to get through some of the books that I had recommended that he read. Ten minutes was about as long as he could go. But I also learned that he loved video. He could really focus when he was learning from instructional videos. When I learned this, we sat down and identified some learning goals in a couple of areas and then I had him build his own video-based curriculum. He built this magnificent curriculum of carefully curated short videos. Well, do you think he was motivated to learn at that point? Here’s the call to action: assess the learning style and disposition of each member of your team. Then have them personalize their own learning journey.

4. Encourage your private and public learners.
Your job is to reduce the inhibition and anxiety that is so often associated with learning. Your team is likely composed of both private and public learners. You may notice that some team members are reluctant to learn in a group setting. We call them private learners. If you sense that reluctance, try to help those team members learn by working with them one-on-one in their space or in a neutral space that’s comfortable to them. And of course they like to work on their own. Private learners prefer quiet, focused, isolation. That’s how they get into their groove or what we call flow state. You will also have some members of your team who learn primarily through social interaction. It’s their source of fuel in the learning process and when you take them away from a social learning environment, they get bored and can’t concentrate. Think about your team members and ask yourself this question: Do you know who the public learners are on your team? Do you know who the private learners are on your team? Most of us tend to be more one than the other. The obvious challenge is that private learning doesn’t allow for real-time collaboration. Your team needs that. When you’re learning together, you can often learn faster because your team is a great brain. You can discuss ideas and provide feedback to each other. Here’s what you can do: First, identify your private learners. Second, invite them to contribute more to public learning even though they may not prefer it. Third, protect their air space from the aggressive public learners on your team who may be tempted to talk more than they listen.

5. Share what you’re learning.
One of the most powerful ways to encourage others to learn is to share what you’re learning. Share the topics, the insights, and most importantly the joy and satisfaction you gain in the learning process. Your optimism and enthusiasm for learning are contagious. Ask yourself this question, “What have I learned lately that I’m excited about?” It may have been something you learned reading a book, watching a video, or listening to a podcast. It may have been something you learned in brief conversation at lunch or in your morning team meeting. It may have been something you learned with a question or experimenting with something. There are so many ways to learn. Now think about this: Learning is a source of happiness. When we learn something new, that new skill or fact or insight or realization is now ours to keep. Every time you learn something new, it changes who you are as a person. You’re just a little more enlightened, a little wiser, a little more capable, and a little more confident. Do you remember when you learned to ride a bike? You probably fell and skinned your knees a few times in the process. But then came that magical moment when the person helping you let go and suddenly you were balancing the bike yourself. Chances are you squealed with joy. Learning brings joy because human beings have an innate desire to learn and become better. What’s the call to action? Share what you learn. Let others feel the enthusiasm of your discovery. Then encourage your team members to do the same.

6. Help your team members get small wins.
Some members of your team will be aggressive in their learning habits and confident in their overall ability to learn and solve problems. Others won’t. They’ll be tentative and feel that they need to ask permission to engage in the learning process even though that sounds a little silly. But that’s really how they feel. Sometimes all a person needs is an invitation to be a part of the learning process. So much of a person’s attitude about and confidence in learning goes back to their prior experiences. Remember what I said in the book: The true definition of devastation is no one caring when you fail. Chances are that you will have some team members who went through that. They felt defeated. Your job is to care deeply about their learning and set them up for success. How do you do that? Identify questions, problems, or challenges that you can give to your more tentative team members as learning assignments. Don’t give them learning assignments that are too big and will discourage them further. Make them manageable and meaningful. I remember when a leader gave a team member an assignment to learn how to perform a simple function in Excel, the spreadsheet software. She said, “Now go see if you can figure out how to do this.” The team member came back an hour later, beaming. She had figured it out. That small win created a little more confidence to get another small win. Now it’s your turn. Help your team members get small wins.

7. Invite others to think beyond their roles.
Because people take pride in what they do, it’s almost always true that they like to talk about their individual roles. Here’s what you can do: Invite the members of your team to explain their roles or share something they’ve recently done in their role and how it influences the other team members. You might do this as part of a weekly meeting. You can set up a “Share Your Role” spotlight moment. This can encourage all team members to appreciate each other as well as learn something new about each role. In the 21st century, it’s essential that every employee learns how to think beyond their role. But that’s not easy because most roles are narrow in scope and so we develop a tactical mindset and we demonstrate siloed thinking. We know our job and not much else because that’s what the organization has asked of us. That’s changing. In the 20s we need team members who can get up in their hot air balloons and see the big picture. Why? How do you improve and innovate if you only see your own role? You need to be able to see processes, systems, and cause and effect relationships. Let’s say you’re a procurement officer and you’re in charge of purchasing a few different kinds of widgets, that’s nice, but what if you can understand our purchasing strategy at a higher level and suggest improvements that go beyond the narrow confines of your role? Wow. That’s valuable. Now go do that. Invite others to think beyond their roles.

8. Share past mistakes.
It’s hard to learn from mistakes if a team has a culture that hides them. If you pay close attention you notice that every team has its own attitude toward mistakes. That attitude comes from the influence of the leader more than any other factor. At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two basic types of teams when it comes to mistakes. Teams that associate mistakes and failure with fear and those that look at mistakes and failure as learning opportunities that move us forward. Your job as a team leader is to engender in your team a norm that separates mistakes and failure from fear. Except in cases where a team member makes a mistake out of recklessness, irresponsibility, or gross negligence, don’t punish mistakes. Celebrate them. How do you do this? How do you get your team to have the courage and confidence to share and learn from mistakes and failure? Simple. Take the opportunity to mention some of your mistakes, some of your failures. Laugh at them and share what you learned from them. This will encourage others to be more comfortable sharing their mistakes and failures and trying to learn from them. Talking about mistakes and showing vulnerability are crucial to encourage others to learn. Remember what I said in the book, “Failure isn’t the exception, it’s the expectation and the way forward. There will be discouragement before discovery.”

9. Ask for help from those of lower status.
Find ways to ask for help from those who are lower than you in the hierarchy. This is a way for you to model humility in learning. It also gives the other person the chance to teach and be helpful which leads to increased confidence and engagement. Step back and think about this: What does status have to do with learning? Answer: Nothing. Does higher status make you smarter? Does higher status make you right? Of course not. That’s ridiculous. But that’s how so many people behave. We defer to those of higher status. We don’t engage in learning and joint problem solving with full confidence. Why? Because the status difference becomes the barrier when in reality it’s nothing but an artificial constraint. The way those of lower status defer to those of higher status is a universal pattern that cuts across every society and culture. And that’s not surprising because when you’re lower on the totem pole, you’re more vulnerable, more exposed to personal risk. So as the leader, you know this pattern already exists. It existed before you were born. What can you do? Honestly and genuinely ask for help from those of lower status. It can’t be contrived artificial or scripted. Make it real. Find real questions or problems that you need help with and ask those who may know but may hold lower status than you. That will go a long way in removing the pernicious problem of status difference that often gets in our way. Now it’s your turn.

10. Frame problems before you solve problems.
Teach your team to frame problems before they solve problems. We often hear a person state a problem and the need to solve it, and then what do we do? We dive into trying to solve it. Isn’t that a good thing? The intent is good, but the approach is wrong. Think about what we do if we just move straight into problem solving. We’re assuming that the problem has been framed correctly. That’s a big assumption, and if we go forward, we end up solving the wrong problem. It’s fantastic to have a team of aggressive and capable problem solvers, but the best teams spend a lot more time at the front end analyzing the problem before they ever think about potential solutions. Find a problem and say, “I’d like you to help me frame this problem, not solve it. I want to make sure I’m defining the problem correctly before I try to solve it.” Here’s a simple way to establish that pattern on your team. Get in the habit of asking your team this question: What are we solving for? A similar question is based on Clayton Christensen’s concept of “the job to be done.” You can ask it this way: What is the job to be done? When you ask either of these two questions, it encourages your team to think about the nature and scope of the question, to frame it correctly, before trying to solve it. Let me summarize. Frame problems before you solve them by using two powerful questions: What are we solving for? Or, what is the job to be done?

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