Four Things an Effective Leader Does to Create a Safe Learning Environment

There is a great story of a up and coming executive in a company who made a critical judgement in assessing the marketplace and lost the company over $10 million. This was a large company, so it did not threaten its survival, but it was a significant error and loss. When he met with the CEO of the company to discuss the issue, he fully expected to be fired. When he offered to resign, the CEO, brushed him off, “I’ve just invested $10 million dollars in you and I have no intention of throwing that away. We have to learn all can from this, rocover what we’ve lost and continue to improve.”

This man later became the CEO. The value of errors and learning from them is a difficult cultural norm to bring in a company, municipality or any organization. Yet, this is one of the most important issues to tackle to make your organization a safe place for thinking and learning.

There are four areas to address when considering this.

The first is Structure.
Agreed upon rules that specify how the team, committee or organization is to behave is the first issue to tackle. This could involve the boundaries and scope of the project or commitee as well as its mission and what success is and is not. How decisions are evaluated, discussed and finally determined are also important. The process, in may ways is as important as the result.

The second requirement is Nurturing.
Nurturing can be seen as a weak or soft and emotional process or point of view. What it really means is working through and with others, helping them solve problems without pre-empting their own work. So instead of doing their thinking for them, a nurtuintg or open enironment creates the opportunities for people to address real issues and bring them to the to the table with their own ideas and ownership of them. “Nurturing others is about guiding others to solve their own problems not coming up with the ‘right’ solutions for them.”

The third requirement is defining the Minimum Critical Specification.
This insight is really, really valuable, so pay attention. Laying out the minimum critical specification of the job, task, committee or group has proven to bring about the most creative and effective solutions. This is basically telling people what they need to know, in broad terms to produce a desired goal or objective and let them figure out the details. People value the broad leadership, but chafe and shut down when they are told how to think and act about everything.

Problem-Solving Hats on all the Time.
When a safe learning environment exists, you create a problem solving machine where everyone is thinking about the issues and challenges your group faces, not internal politics, personality clashes or silo/departmet thinking.

In the end, you want everyone thinking all the time about how to solve real problems your group is facing. Creating a safe, learning environment can help you along this path.

Credits: Ten Steps to a Learning Organization by Peter Kline and Bernard Saunders

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