Build A Company Culture Of Learning With This Critical Ingredient

This post was first published in Forbes on 15 Jan 2017.

Why should leaders build a company culture that learns?

Partly, to compete fiercely and partly just to survive. With the average lifespan of an average S&P 500 company falling from 67 years to just 15 years today, the marketplace is much more unforgiving towards companies that take too long to learn their lessons.

But where did the idea of a learning organization come from?

The term itself was popularized in the 1990s by Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, authors David Garvin, Amy Edmondson, and Francesca Gino talk about the importance of every company becoming a “learning organization”.

One of the key building blocks they identified in a company culture that supports learning is the concept of ‘psychological safety’. In their words,“To learn, employees cannot fear being belittled or marginalized when they disagree with peers or authority figures, ask naive questions, own up to mistakes, or present a minority viewpoint.”

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Separately, Google embarked on a 2-year study to build a perfect team, and found that in determining if a team would be successful, the composition matters less than the way team members “interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.”

Prime on their list of the five “key dynamics” that made successful teams at Google was the idea of psychological safety among team members. Team members needed to feel safe enough to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. In her article Google’s Ms Rosovsky described this as “far and away the most important of the five dynamics (they) found — it’s the underpinning of the other four.”


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While self-preserving behaviour is natural in the workplace, it can erode the foundation of effective teamwork and a culture of learning from each other. The safer team members feel with each other, the more likely they are to collaborate, admit mistakes, and take new opportunities – critical foundational behaviours in a fast learning culture.

So how does a leader create a culture of psychological safety in her team?

  1. Encourage Failure

Sooner or later, everyone’s going to make a mistake. Sometimes even a big one.

The pursuit of excellence is an important endeavour, but if everyone on your team feels like they will be punished for the slightest mistake, positive risk-taking behaviour will very quickly be ‘crowded out’. Even worse, unproductive politicking behaviour to avoid blame will start getting ‘crowded in’.

Making sure that your staff are held accountable for mistakes, while at the same time making it clear that they do get a second chance, helps to bolster the sense of psychological safety within a team.

  1. Admit Your Own Mistakes

Increasingly the idea of an invulnerable Superman of a leader is being eroded. Bill George, creator of the “authentic leadership” approach to management, encourages leaders to be vulnerable and forthright in admitting their own mistakes.

Seeking honest feedback from others to learn from one’s mistakes is not always as easy as it sounds. The temptation as a leader is to surround yourself with sycophants, those who are more interested in telling you what a good job you are doing instead of helping you find ways to become even better.

In Asia, especially, there is a fear of ‘losing face’ when admitting mistakes, or a fear of indirectly encouraging more mistakes through such an admission. If a leader is genuine about taking active steps to prevent repeat errors, and in taking on board honest feedback about improvement, this instead signals strength and gives a protocol for others to follow when they too get things wrong.

  1. Hold “Anxiety Parties”

This may be a bit less conventional but certainly worth a try. Google Ventures recommends throwing “anxiety parties” – openly sharing what each team member is vulnerable and anxious about, specifically about the way they interact with the rest of the team.

In a way, this functions like a 360 degree feedback tool, except it is uniquely tailored to address each individual’s main concerns about their own workstyle. By getting direct feedback on whether particular anxieties are indeed areas for improvement, leaders avoid wasting effort on aspects that don’t actually bother anyone, and focus on those that really do.

A pleasant side effect is that by demanding vulnerability from everyone (no one in the discussion should have a blank sheet with no anxieties), an environment of safety is created naturally amongst people who might otherwise find it difficult to let their guard down.

Learning At The Center Of Company Culture

Regardless of whether you’re leading a nimble startup or a large multinational, having a culture that promotes psychological safety and vulnerability improves the chances that your company will learn faster than your competitors. Best of all, the investment comes just in changing the pattern of communicating about errors, leaving your balance sheet free of additional liabilities.

Author: Chee Tung

CheeTung is the CEO of EngageRocket, an HR tech startup that analyses employee feedback in real-time to advise you on how to build a better culture, one team at a time.


  • Raymond Leung 26/01/2017 at 11:59 am

    Good insights. Building a learning culture in company has very positive and long term effect, e.g., better performance, sense of achievement, creating confidence, feel good and better engagement in the organization. This is what every manager should allocate his/her time on.

    • CheeTung 26/01/2017 at 6:52 pm

      Thanks Raymond, the fact that encouraging learning is one of the most powerful and highly leveraged actions a leader can do resonates very strongly with me. Hope to continue to impress this on other leaders everywhere!

  • Shadrack 07/03/2017 at 6:57 am

    Hi Chee,
    This is spot on
    Promoting psychological safety and vulnerability as a key ingredient in developing stronger teams in the workplace reduces employee turnover rates.

    Human beings tend to stay where they feel safe and loved despite their shortcomings.


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