Blog: Learning Curve

Brave Spaces or Safe Spaces to Support (un)Learning?

Safe Spaces. Seems people support or deride them. But what purpose do they serve, and for whom?

Generally, safe spaces offer sanctuary from risk, injury, and adversity—often resulting in polite spaces that avoid controversy and contradiction.

In some academic settings, safe spaces provide important refuge for isolated groups during significant learning years.

In business, however—where the notion of power must be mitigated and navigated—we require brave spaces, and for a very different reason.

The Perfect Team

Google spent two years investigating what makes a team successful.

Google’s initial hypothesis suggested that building the best possible team means simply compiling the best people—the best experts, engineers, MBAs, and Ph.D.’s.

After studying 180 Google teams, conducting 200+ interviews, and analyzing over 250 different team attributes, to their surprise, Google was unable to reduce the “dream team” gene to any one formula or algorithm.

According to Julia Rozovsky, Google’s people analytics manager, “We were dead wrong.”

Rozovsky and her colleagues continually came across psychology and sociology research that had focused on “group norms”— the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how teams function together.

Google discovered five qualities that matter. The first four are: 

  1. Dependability. Team members accomplish things on time and meet expectations.
  2. Structure and clarity. High-performing teams have clear goals and well-defined roles.
  3. Meaning. The work is personally significant to each member.
  4. Impact. The group believes their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good.

The Fifth Quality: Psychological Safety.

Google also discovered that full participation depends on a fifth quality, termed psychological safety, in which everyone can take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. A culture in which managers create safe zones so employees can let their guard down. That’s psychological safety.

The irony is that group norms informed by expertise, knowledge, and high education levels can actually undermine psychological safety. People feel controlled, micromanaged, judged, and not safe to question, learn, and grow.

Ask yourself, regarding group norms marked by power, fear, micromanagement, and control:

  • Can people take risks? Challenge managers and supervisors? Offer input that isn’t solicited?
  • Can people question leadership without being shut down? Are some questions allowed and not others?
  • Are these group norms meant for a single culture, color, or sex? Can they be questioned, and if so, by whom?

Google posited psychological safety as necessary to “engineering” successful teams.

Safety for Whom?

Now, we come back to safety.

What if all of this focus on safety is misplaced? What about teams that are informed by diverse experiences, thinking, and views?

What if safety is simply another way to comfort the comfortable and preserve the status quo? Or what if it conceals real issues and suppresses differences?

Most importantly, this kind of “safety” begins to feel like groupthink. It keeps those in power from being questioned, encouraging different views, receiving feedback, or risk-taking.

So then, what do we mean by “safe” in a business context?

  • One definition involves entitlement to comfort without conflict.
  • Another involves being secure in one’s position to speak their mind.

Safety as comfort preserves the status quo and encourages groupthink.

  • Safety protects those in power and the dominant group to prevent raising “uncomfortable” issues.
  • Safety offers comfort for those in power. We cannot speak truth to power or question the status quo. We can only share views that are comfortable for those in leadership.
  • Safety undermines true innovation, which begins at the margins. What seems odd or awkward today becomes tomorrow’s new products and services.

Safety as secure in our position to speak our mind involves brave spaces.

Secure in our well-being, we are encouraged to speak our mind. With practice, we learn to:

  • listen to different experiences, ideas, and ways of thinking;
  • handle questions, feedback, and opposing views;
  • consider new ideas; and
  • become agile and nimble, able to surface and question outmoded assumptions and beliefs.

Power and Fear

Unlike safe spaces, brave spaces dissolve and address the power and fear that can cripple team participation.

Power typically involves five dimensions:

  • Legitimate power: position of authority
  • Expert power: acquiring expertise and knowledge,
  • Coercive power: exerting force and control,
  • Reward power: offering incentives or reinforcement, and
  • Referent power: gaining approval through loyalty and admiration.

Power in teams is often used to control agendas, hoard resources, predict situations, prevent discomfort, or protect self-interests. This can lead to hostile work environments.

Fear typically comes from some perceived threat, such as loss of power and loss of self.

We can explain fear by how we perceive threats. Research by Carol Dweck on growth and fixed mindsets and Chris Argyris on Defensive Reasoning reveal how experts and smart people refuse to grow, change and learn.

Dweck found that children with fixed mindsets would cheat, lie, and give up just to preserve their “all-knowing” identity.

Argyris defines a “universal human tendency to design one’s actions consistently according to four basic values: 1) To remain in unilateral control; 2) to maximize ‘winning’ and minimize ‘losing’; 3) to suppress negative feelings; and, 4) to be as ‘rational’ as possible—by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether or not they have achieved them.”

These values serve to “avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent.”

Shifting to Dweck’s growth mindset is one solution, but it’s not easy. It takes time to surface and evolve fixed beliefs, assumptions, and expectations about life, success, change, and leadership.

This brings us back to the group norms we internalize that often define how we operate in teams. Are these norms based on being challenged to grow and embrace change or preserving status, power, and identity?

Principles for Brave Spaces

In times of volatile change, complexity, and integrating diverse cultures and experiences, those in power often conflate their role with their ideas and expectations of comfort. They exact control to suppress dissenting voices and differences.

Their attempt to control behavior and resources often overlooks the very innovation they wish to harness.

To combat this, they would do well to build resilience and openness to opposing viewpoints, challenging questions, and critical feedback.

Brave spaces incorporate these principles to build such resilience:

Openness and Diversity. Embrace diversity in all its forms to include group identities and cognitive diversity. Beyond cultural fit, hire people who promote cultural fitness.

Cognitive Friction. Allow friction and tensions from diverse experiences, thinking, and views to surface multiple viewpoints.

Intellectual Humility. Encourage leaders to embrace their vulnerabilities and do not expect them to know everything or to have all the answers.

Unlearning Worldviews: Creating Brave Spaces

Such resilience begins with unlearning long-held attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs—worldviews that shape group norms.

Based on the research of oppressive and hostile organizational cultures, which also impede growth and learning, these five worldviews are ripe for unlearning.

1 – Fear of Open Conflict.

Unlearn: We equate raising difficult issues with being impolite, rude, or out of line. Those with power fear losing control. They are scared of conflict and will deny or ignore it.

Brave spaces receive concerns openly, encouraging feedback and raising difficult issues. Avoid prescribing “acceptable” ways to raise difficult issues. Acknowledge those who surface difficult issues.

Practice: Avoid making the issue about yourself rather than the topic. Own both your intention and your impact.

2 – Hoarding Power.

Unlearn: Power is seen as limited—a zero-sum game—with no value in sharing it. Those with power personalize change; they feel threatened by change, viewing it as a reflection on their leadership. Loss of power is a loss of self.

Brave spaces appreciate questions. Leaders share power with others to cultivate trust and advance their goals and efforts. They appreciate that change is inevitable and understand that challenging questions can be healthy and productive (to leadership).

Practice: Develop the ability to live in the question. Don’t become attached to immediate answers or solutions. Avoid the need to always be certain, in charge, or in control.

3 – My View or No View.

Unlearn the attitude that yours is the one objective view of reality. When we are unwilling to listen to other views, people will shut down or merely agree with those in power. This leads to groupthink.

Brave spaces encourage opposing viewpoints. Realize that there isn’t one objective worldview; everybody has a worldview that affects the way they understand things.

Practice: Sit in discomfort when people express themselves in ways that are not familiar to you. Assume that everybody has a valid point and your job is to understand that point.

4 – Perfectionism.

Unlearn the attitude that mistakes should not exist—that it is impossible to learn from mistakes. We often confuse making a mistake or doing wrong with being a mistake or being wrong. Our concern with our “proper” image finds us controlling situations and hiding problems.

Brave spaces shift from controlling to learning. We cultivate learning cultures of practice, not perfection, where mistakes are inevitable, an expected part of uncertainty. We separate our views and ideas from our identities.

Practice: Become interested in the best ideas, not the best look or image. Frame mistakes as learning opportunities that cultivate humility.

5 – Intellectual Overconfidence.

Unlearn the belief that those with authority must know best. We all overestimate how much we know. Knowledge today has a half-life of 5–7 years. Overconfidence can lead to moral superiority, and we become susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect, and confirmation bias.

Brave spaces understand that knowledge evolves, so we invite everyone to examine their beliefs and surface their assumptions. Knowing is not as important as learning.

Practice: Become comfortable with uncertainty and share vulnerabilities that encourage more questions than answers.

Finally

Brave spaces include Google’s criteria of dependability, structure, meaning, and impact as being necessary for performance.

Brave spaces also expand psychological safety to encourage diversity and inclusion for people to speak up, express alternative viewpoints, challenge the status quo, and acknowledge issues in the power structure without fearing punishment.

Only brave spaces can marry performance and inclusion to create belonging.

Reading Time: 11 min. Digest Time: 17 min

Please view these related blogs to complement this post:


tony-zampella-headshot

Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. 

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.


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True Diversity and Inclusion Requires Equity

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Pathway to ‘Mutual Understanding’

Reading Time: 9 min. Digest Time: 16 min

I’ve recently come to see the impact of deepening understanding on strategy, culture, performance, and connection. Thus, I will introduce the term mutual understanding for exploration.

Even with research, it is challenging to find a way of grokking this concept. It is usually described in cognitive or conceptual ways or, in some cases, through philosophical or deep communications models.

What if we could expand such a human possibility with practices and tools to appreciate multiple perspectives and shared stories that give meaning to our lives?

Developmental Pathway

Mutual understanding stems from a deep interest in others and a radical openness that honors what arises as witnessed and appreciated to cultivate new levels of awareness. The outcome is a greater appreciation of the “in-betweenness” of self and others, such that we begin dissolving boundaries.

I locate mutual understanding in our human experience beyond our cognitive or conceptual notions of individual understanding.

Given the nature of connectivity, differences, and multiple perspectives, I believe that cultivating mutual understanding will soon be in demand. To begin, I will outline a pathway that involves three stages of development, viewed here as three mindsets: cognitive self (X), affective self (XY), and embodied self (XYZ).

  • X = Our cognitive self clarifies our thoughts and perceptions with logic to reason objective evidence and knowledge. We discern circumstances and concepts for developing a grounded understanding.
  • X+Y = With our cognitive self (X), we add context, emotions, and experiences to develop our affective self (Y) for creating a shared understanding.
  • X+Y+Z = We become intentional (X) and cultivate radical openness (Y) to receive multiple perspectives. We develop our embodied self (Z) for cultivating mutual understanding.

We identify this developmental pathway from grounded understanding, to shared understanding, and finally, to mutual understanding.

A Fuller View

Grounded understanding (X)

This stage of understanding begins with our cognitive self. Here, we achieve a norm-content view to become effective at discerning circumstances.

  • We develop a grounded understanding to define facts, beliefs, and evidence. We gain an intentional and objective view of reality to dissolve “magical thinking” and clarify any misunderstanding.
  • With reason, we clarify our focus on observing and analyzing our circumstances accurately to conceptualize and manage events.
  • By knowing the rules and norms, we define shared agreements and establishing boundaries to manage events and our self.

The work at this level is fundamental for developing a disciplined focus to discern facts and question evidence. This level of grounding shapes what’s possible as the next stage. We arrive at a grounded understanding when we can manage content and navigate conditions efficiently and effectively.

Shared understanding (XY)

At this second stage, we increase awareness of our affective self. Here, we achieve an action-reflective view to enhance self-expression.

  • We include our experiences and develop emotional courage and intelligence to express our voice and values for relating to others.
  • We add context by reflecting on shared knowledge and interests (as in SIGs or resource groups), perspectives, and experiences.
  • Shared understanding emerges from questioning assumptions and expectations within a larger context.

This level relies on the previous stage (X) to enhance how we relate to common norms, shared agreements, priorities, and practices. We tune into a shared vision or larger context and communicate it to others. We arrive at a shared understanding when we can anticipate and coordinate action effectively with others, often from a deeper relatedness.

Mutual understanding (XYZ)

This third stage emerges by being with others from an embodied self or awareness. Here, we achieve a meaning-context view as we experience multiple perspectives within an intersubjective field.

  • This stage develops a shared language (thoughts/meaning) that reveals our worldviews (perspectives, ideologies, attitudes, etc.) for learning together. This can involve exploring blind spots in shared spaces such as affinity groups and circles.
  • We cultivate a radical openness, not as a passive state but as an intentional presence to reveal our interconnectedness, “in-betweenness,” or communion.
  • This stage requires dancing with elements from a grounded understanding to be fully present (X) and shared understanding to be fully related (XY), to be with the possibility and meaning that arises (XYZ).

Mutual understanding creates shared meaning for discovering together.

We all have our own “sacred stories” that organize our focus and give purpose and meaning to our lives. Discovering these stories offers us a view of what it means to be human together with multiple views and experiences from common humanity. We arrive at a mutual understanding with others when we can tune into deeper meaning (cultural, ideological, perspectival) to discern context or open possibility.

While deep and complex, we achieve this through a pathway of practice, training, and development. (See “stages” in GRID A and “development” in GRID B below.)

GRID-A: Description of how each “Stage of Understanding” unfolds.

Definition, Experience, and Meaningfulness

Each stage of understanding is constituted by a component that distinguishes it, such as “definition” for grounded understanding, “experience” for shared understanding, and “meaningfulness” for mutual understanding.

It begins with grasping/defining a concept sufficiently to apply it, accessing its experience to relate to it, and internalizing that experience/meaning to inform your view (embodying it).

For example, let’s consider this range with the concept of “balance”:

  1. What is the definition “balance?”
  2. What was your first experience of “balance?”
  3. What does “balance” mean to you?

These three questions rely on different assumptions, expectations, and outcomes.

Question #1 requires agreement on a definition. For instance, “an even distribution of weight to enable someone or something to remain upright.” Or, maybe, “a condition of different elements as equal or in the correct proportions.” Common definitions allow people to cognitively understand a term or concept. The outcome is a shared agreement to communicate effectively.

Question #2 requires reflection on an actual experience. For me, the answer might be “when I learned to ride a bike, roller-skate, or walk the beam in gymnastics.” This offers access to an experience. The outcome allows for a shared experience for relating to each other.

Question #3 requires both a definition and a reflection on an experience that informs how I view it now. This might include any of these perspectives: alignment, equilibrium, harmony, calm, stable, centered, equal or steady. Driven by interest, I discover the perspectives of others and we develop resonance. The outcome is a shared meaning for deeper connections.

The rest of this post includes tools, trainings, and practices borrowed from the work of the Fifth Discipline to develop the capacity for mutual understanding.

Five Disciplines

To illuminate this developmental pathway, I have used research of five disciplines—personal mastery, mental models, team learning, shared vision, systems thinking— developed by Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline and Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. Each of these disciplines offers tools and practices so relevant today for developing the awareness, thinking, perceptions, listening, imagining and personal mastery that supports each stage of understanding.

Diagram of “Ladder of Inference.”

  1. To expand Personal Mastery, use tools like perceptual positions and reframing to enhance the quality of interactions and relationships.
  2. To clarify Mental Models and Worldviews, use tools like the ladder of inference and reflective inquiry to reveal and challenge assumptions and to unlearn outmoded beliefs and expectations in order to develop shared understanding.
  3. For Team Learning, use tools such as the action-learning cycle (below) and dialogue to develop critical reflection skills for robust and skillful discussions.

    Diagram of “Action-Learning Cycles” by three theorists.

  4. To create a Shared Vision, tools such as positive visioning and values alignment forge common meaning/focus to align learning targets, improvement strategies, and challenge goals.
  5. Cultivate Systems Thinking to unpack culture and unravel subtleties, influences, and impact of change that lead to a deeper awareness of the interconnections behind changing any system. Systems thinking maps and archetypes analyze situations, events, problems, possible causes, or courses of action to reveal subtle change possibilities or solutions.

Grid B: Thinking and Development at each “Stage of Understanding.”

Bring It All Together

So, where are we in this three-dimensional model?

Grounded understanding

Here, I am concerned with shared agreements that I can observe, discern, and communicate.

For example, if I am in a car accident, can I seek evidence to make my case and support my findings for moving forward? This requires focus to assess the situation, to analyze data and information, to connect dots (who to call first, second, and third and what information to secure), and act on the information in a timely manner.

This level of understanding is used daily to manage content, and deliver on promises, become reliable, plan events, and manage tasks.

With practice, this level will support me in expanding my capacity to predict—a skill which I can hone at the next level, shared understanding.

Shared understanding

Here, I can access shared experience within a context.

Last week, I left two notebooks at Starbucks, where I go several times a week to develop ideas and edit. I nearly panicked. Those notes are priceless to me. I have ideas for future blogs, curricula, and half-baked thoughts I reflect on often. The morning after I noticed this, I called Starbucks. The person listened to me, left for less than 60 seconds, and returned with, “Yeah, we have them here.”

Relieved, I immediately appreciated our shared understanding.

Any other restaurant may have thrown these left-behind notes away. However, Starbucks staff has been trained to understand why customers consume their brand, beyond its lattes and lunches.

Consider that this worker knew exactly where to look and what to expect. They have likely figured this out through shared agreements, identified priorities, and best practices to operationalize purpose as their primary relationship to the customer.

They have created a context that connects it as a “third-way” place where people come to think, create, work, and belong. They “get it,” which saved me.

Mutual understanding

Through intentional learning and discovery, I’ve realized the limits of knowing (knowledge) and the value of experiences. I’ve presenced a sense of meaning in my life that resonates with others.

I become more open to learning and more interested in communion with others. I’ve cultivated openness to discovering the many perspectives, attitudes, and interests that shape what’s happening in a way that moves what’s going on with me, and vice-versa.

This shared interest, resonance, and interconnectedness dissolves me as a resume of accomplishments or identities and reveals myself as the qualities likely to manifest at my eulogy.

As a gay, white, Italian, male, Buddhist practitioner, immigrant’s son, college grad, writer, researcher, educator, coach, and consultant—what does all that mean to me? How do I weave this together to add meaning, purpose, and direction to my life?

Which part of my identity do I highlight or which parts to I access to cultivate deeper connections? How am I experienced by others? How do I experience myself, such that it shapes how I am interconnected with others?

What are the sacred stories emerging from my existence, and can I share those? Am I interested and able to hear those stories from others for no other reason than to deepen my connection?

Finally:

As coaches and human development professionals, how can we support ourselves and others to cultivate mutual understanding?

I can leverage a grounded understanding from shared agreements to become intentional; create shared understanding from shared experiences to become related; and, cultivate mutual understanding from shared meaning to become interconnected.

Planting myself on this journey not only opens me up with clients, friends, and family, but it also offers access to our sacred stories: mine and yours. More importantly, I can begin to imagine the gaps between my world of privilege and those whose marginalized experiences can be hard to understand.

Paradoxically, with mutual understanding, I need not fully understand these gaps. I can accept that there are gaps and imagine what’s possible to create new bridges.


tony-zampella-headshot

Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. 

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.


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 “In times of change, those who are prepared to learn will inherit the land, while those who think they already know will find themselves wonderfully equipped to face a world that no longer exists.”

—ERIC HOFFER

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