Culture Change- Accomplished through individual and safe learning environments

November 24th, 2021 Research

Culture Change- Accomplished through individual and safe learning environments


Learning is a complex process, influenced by factors both internal and external to the learner. One core aspect underlying any type of learning is the safety of the learner. In order to reflect and build upon what they already know, learners must feel safe to ask questions, make mistakes, and challenge existing norms or assumptions. Within the workplace, the safety of the learner is especially important when exploring values, such as respect, equity, diversity and inclusion, and acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, including bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination. At Respect Group, we believe that culture change occurs by empowering individuals. Through our Respect in the Workplace program, individual employees have the opportunity to learn about difficult topics and develop skills in a safe, secure learning environment, which they can then put into practice to create broader organizational culture change. 


What is the safety of the learner?


According to Dr. Timothy R. Clark, CEO of LeaderFactor and author of “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety”, learning is both intellectual and emotional, and safety is a fundamental aspect of the learning process. For learners to engage effectively in the learning process through asking questions, sharing and receiving feedback, trying out new knowledge, and making mistakes, the learning environment must feel psychologically safe. When learners feel safe, they’re more willing to be vulnerable, build resilience, and take risks. If learner safety isn’t present, learners will aim to manage personal risks by limiting themselves, shutting down, and not fully engaging in the process (Leader Factor, 2020). 


Clark goes on to say that through combining both respect and permission- to make mistakes, to learn, and to grow- psychological safety is established. Psychological safety underlies learner safety, where learners feel supported in their efforts to learn by their team and feel comfortable making mistakes or asking questions without fear of being embarrassed or marginalized. Adults learn primarily through tackling challenges, experimenting, making mistakes and correcting them, and reflecting on their experiences; if learner safety is not present, learners disengage, censor what they are reflecting and sharing, and approach tasks in defensive mode (Leader Factor, 2020).


When more risk is brought into the learning process, a higher degree of psychological safety is required to set the stage for safe learning. The cognitive thinking brain and the affective feeling brain are intricately connected, so the more fear there is within a learning environment, the more difficult learning becomes (Leader Factor, 2020). The primary obstacle to learning is behavioural, rather than structural, so organizations and leaders must aim to shift behavioural norms and eliminate sources of fear, as well as reward  vulnerability, to build the foundation for learner safety (Leader Factor, 2020). 


When it comes to difficult and potentially emotionally sensitive topics like bullying, abuse, harassment, and discrimination (BAHD), group workshops are (at least initially) less effective than a consistent one-to-one approach. Given the potential of having these very behaviours present in a group setting can undermine the ability to get all learners equally and confidently educated. When difficult topics can be presented in a safe environment, such as through eLearning and simulated scenarios, risks are decreased and psychological safety is increased, creating the conditions for safe learning. 


Real culture change is led by individual learning 


Within organizations, learning and culture cycles operate in reverse order to one another (Hurley, 2002). Hurley explains that culture is held at the group level through norms but operates on the individual level through behaviour; in contrast, learning occurs first at an individual level through independent thought, which in turn can shape the culture through enacted beliefs and behaviours. Learning influences culture creation and change in a reciprocal manner, with culture both influencing and being influenced by learning (Hurley, 2002). Through the modeling of behaviour and talking about values, beliefs, and assumptions, the products of individual learning can end up becoming widely held organizational norms and beliefs (Hurley, 2002). 


When an organization holds deeply entrenched beliefs that require reflection and change, individual learning is necessary to challenge assumptions and habits to create culture change (Hurley, 2002). This bottom-up versus top-down learning model is critical to the innovativeness of organizations; research has shown that the most important contributor to creating innovative workplace cultures is the learning and development of individual employees (Hurley, 2002). 


For organizations to foster culture change, innovation, and advancement, they must invest in the employees’ individual learning. When working to change organizational culture, creating the space for employees to learn and reflect individually will impact their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, progressively building towards change within organizational cultures. Individual learning is only fostered through psychologically safe learning environments and is the key to creating sustainable, organizational-wide culture change. 



Hurley, R. F. (2002). Putting people back into organizational learning. Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing.

Leader Factor. (2020, September 3). Stage 2: Learner Safety. Retrieved from   



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