Resilience, Psychological Safety, and Learning

“You can’t get these people to change,” was the message from the outgoing unit manager. After two years of well-intentioned but frustrating work, the verdict was that the team was stuck. Interviews of team members provided a different perspective. They felt ready for change, but feared that the impending changes were designed to reduce staffing, leaving some out of work and the remaining people overloaded. The environment had become ominous. Their top priority was to keep focused on their present job.

The manager could not understand why the threat of major restructuring in the organization did not motivate people into action. The status quo was not an option. But what is the record for fear inspiring change?

The Broaden and Build Model of Barbara Fredrickson wants everyone to be happy. At least some of the time if not most of the time.

Positive emotions promote learning. When people feel safe and content, they don’t just become complacent. A pleasant state of mind broadens the mind, allowing people to learn something new. When feeling secure, people are more likely to open their minds to new experiences. They broaden their perspectives and build new capabilities for the future.

The other side of the coin is the experience of stress. When in a threatening situation, attention becomes more focus. Under threat, people revert to a familiar repertoire. It makes sense in a way. When the consequences of failure are great and imminent, it’s time to call upon whatever it is that you do best. When hosting a dinner party, it’s wise to prepare a familiar recipe.

The message from Broaden and Build is that psychological safety is a valuable resource for learning. To build resilience for the long run, a first step is building confidence among team members that they will receive civility and respect. They can stumble along the way towards developing a new skill without experiencing dire consequences.

What to Do:

  1. Encourage the free flow of ideas by encouraging processes that work through different points of view.
  2. Design engaging work. Psychological safety is a foundation for positive emotions at work, but it’s not enough on its own. People want to believe they are doing valuable work that has an impact on their world.
  3. Keep focused on resilience. One dimension of a learning organization is building team resilience as they encounter challenges in the course of their work. Part of leadership is anticipating those challenges.
  4. So, while you may not be able to “get these people to change,” you can build an environment that encourages a fresh perspective on resilience, psychological safety, and learning.

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