The date was set. The morning arrived. I jumped in the car with an assortment of nerves, anxiety and excitement. I was making my way to commence my level 3 coaching qualification. I’d been coaching for almost 10 years prior but such experience did nothing to quell my nerves. Reflecting on my internal dialogue over the course of this 90 minute commute, a vast and never ending swarm of questions emerged in my mind. “Am I ready for this?” “Am I competent enough to pass the assessment?” “Will I know any of the other coaches?” but most of all “Why am I so nervous when this should be fun and hopefully a brilliant learning experience?”
The first person I saw upon arrival was the all-time record goal scorer for his country and someone I’d watched score goals for fun on television many times. The fact such a well-known professional was on the course compounded my feelings, although I thought it best to take the opportunity to have a chat. I shared my vulnerabilities about starting the course. I was slightly taken aback when he told me he was feeling the exact same way. Despite an excellent career at the highest level, he also was experiencing apprehension by stepping into a formal coach development setting. To hear an elite performer say something so humble proved refreshing.
As the week progressed, my initial fears alleviated. I was welcomed by amiable and caring coach developers, I was surrounded by a fantastic group of coaches experiencing the same journey and engaging in a challenging but enjoyable programme of learning. I felt connected to the experience, connected to the staff and connected to my peers. I didn’t have the language for it then, but I was experiencing an environment characterised by psychological safety.
Kahn (1990) notes that an environment where an individual perceives they can express themselves without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career is characterised by psychological safety. So how important is psychological safety in a coach development settings? At present any content we have on this is generally anecdotal, much like the anecdote shared in the first few paragraphs. However existing literature does indicate psychological safety can be transformative when it comes to learning across various contexts.
Before we investigate that, let’s delve deeper into the concept of psychological safety: what it is and what it isn’t. One of the leading academics on the construct of psychological safety is Dr. Amy Edmondson from Harvard University. Dr. Edmondson notes that psychological safety encompasses the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. Based on this description you can potentially identify how a safe coach development climate may offer benefits to the learners. I like to consider it as an environment where you can be your true self with the permission to grow and learn in a way which is authentic to you and your needs.
As we develop an understanding of what PS is, it’s important to remember what it is not. I’ve had friends describe psychological safety as something ‘pink and fluffy’. Edmondson (2004) notes that psychological safety does not simply imply a cosy environment in which people are necessarily close friends, nor does it suggest an absence of pressure or problems. In a brilliant blog piece Duana Blomstrom captures this fantastically well. She notes that PS is not an excuse for complacency and laziness. It’s not the absence of performance goals or measuring success. It’s not a license to forgo all morality filters and its certainly not guaranteed employment no matter our actions and behaviour. A psychologically safe world is not one where we can do and say whatever we want because we feel safe. Boundaries still exist. Blomstrom notes it’s about reconceptualising how we view mistakes, it’s fine to not know everything, it’s good to open up and be vulnerable, it’s right to have a passionate common purpose.
So where does PS fit in a learning environment? Well Edmondson (2004) highlights that PS is likely to affect behaviours related to learning and improvement. She identifies 5 key areas which contribute to this positive learning environment:
Each member of a team can look to other members to provide information or perspective to help them solve a challenging problem.
Despite carrying interpersonal risk, feedback-seeking is often essential to successful task completion, growth and improvement.
Speaking up about errors and concerns
Psychological safety is proposed to allow team members to speak up about concerns and problems directly, by alleviating concerns about repercussions.
Innovative Behaviour and Innovation
The freedom to offer new ideas and experiment with different behaviours is encouraged without fear of looking stupid or being embarrassed.
Boundary-spanning behaviour describes external communication with other groups, such as needed to coordinate objectives, schedules or resources. Boundary spanning can also involve interpersonal risk.
Coach developers may wish to consider if and when these behaviours emerge during their interactions with coaches. For example if we consider feedback as a key component of any learning environment we may wish to consider if PS can contribute to creating an effective climate to provide such feedback. Johnson et al. (2020) investigated what psychological safety looks like in the context of workplace feedback and how educators can work with learners to foster it? The authors analysed 36 videos of routine formal feedback episodes involving diverse health professionals. A psychologically safe learning environment was inferred when learners progressively disclosed information and engaged in productive learning behaviours during the conversation. Four themes emerged in the results of the study: (a) setting the scene for dialogue and candour; (b) educator as ally; (c) a continuing improvement orientation, and (d) encouraging interactive dialogue. The educator’s approaches seemed to foster a psychologically safe environment by conveying a focus on learning, and demonstrating respect and support to learners.
To bring psychological safety back to the world of coach development I decided to ask some experienced, well revered coach developers their thoughts. I became curious if some of the coach developers that I respected and admired saw PS as an important feature for their environments and interaction with coaches?
Firstly I asked long-time friend and colleague Kurt Lindley. Kurt has worked with hundreds of coaches from dozens of sports in his 15 year career in coach development, he now successfully facilitates learning programmes though his company BeMore Learning & Development. I’ve always found his learning sessions fun, innovative and challenging. Where does psychological safety fit for him? He shared his thoughts, “Without this safety I cannot be myself and being myself (a good version) is far better and more important than being the person the environment expects. I appreciate some may have tension with this and feel the need to conform to the norms of an environment but the more you distance yourself from who you really are the wider the gap becomes between trust/confidence in yourself and self-inflicted doubt and insecurity…. This leads to anxiety, fragility, worry, indecision.
With the presence of psychological safety we are able to trust in the people and the environment, put ideas forward, pose questions, challenge standard approaches and grow. How is it created, there is no one formula (although some may have you believe so). It starts with hello and builds with how you notice and attend to the micro and macro behaviours/actions during the life of the relationship. When things are true and congruent it works, when things are false and incongruent it falls down and miss/distrust creeps in.”
Kurt clearly felt that in order to get the best out of anyone, or yourself, safety and trust need to be present. Kurt’s answer inspired me to expand my question to other colleagues. Tandy Haughey has been a coach developer for almost 20 years. She is a fantastic academic but also works at the coalface of sport, supporting the development of coaches. Tandy spoke with candour in relation to her thoughts on PS: “When asked to write a short piece for this blog I needed to do that good old google search to truly identify what do we really mean by ‘psychological safety?’ What did I find! ‘Ability to take moderate risk in speaking your mind ….. show and employ one’s self without fear !’ When interpreting this the key message for me was how can I adapt strategies when delivering any learning that anyone involved have a truly open space to discuss and give their thoughts and opinions without being judged? This at times has been difficult as you have to judge the room whether that be virtual (which has been the norm for the last year and a bit) or in that live setting. How can we truly create that social learning space that all feel valued, supported and confident?”
Tandy continued, “If we consider our performers when we coach how do we create that motivational climate? give the performer autonomy for their learning? the opportunity to speak and be listened to? ….. Creativity is at the heart of everything – the ability to adapt to understand people even those who can be at times difficult and want to challenge!!! But WHY? They want to learn, they want to know and understand!!! Your way may not be their way but how can that common ground be established. RESPECT, TRUST, OPENNESS and WHOLEHEARTEDLY wanting to reflect on what you have done within that learning opportunity. Have I truly created a place for all to learn and feel comfortable? How did I structure those questions? How did I use terminology? All too often using the jargon that means something to me but not to those that are engaged in the session …. I am there to facilitate learning …. Acknowledgement that I CARE and want them to feel:
P = part of the session
S = safe in what they are doing or saying
Y = YOU being themselves throughout
C = connected to me and to others within the learning session
H = happy in their surrounding
O = open to speak their mind
L = learning from everyone in the workshop/coaching course
O = opportunity to give their perspective
G = gel as one community of practice
I = included in everything that is happening in the learning session
C = contributing and feeling valued for that contribution
A = aligned in the social learning space that has been created
L = lifelong that they will continue on that journey to want to know more”
From writing this blog I’ve developed a deeper curiosity to investigate the impact psychological safety can have on coach development settings. It’s important for me to say that I don’t believe PS is a silver bullet which will magically cultivate fantastic and meaningful coach development experiences. Coach development with an abundance of PS but a dearth of purposeful content or interactive discussion doesn’t cut it. I have a strong sense however that the construct has a place in coach development. Especially if we want to see the best versions of both the coach and the coach developer. Perhaps it could become a conscious feature when we structure our future learning design. This concept may resonate with some, with others it may not. What I’d like to leave you with is a nudge to have some healthy debate over if and where PS fits in the world of coach development. Let’s together, gather more insight on its value, context and potential application.
By Michael Cooke, Club & Coaching Consultant, Sport Northern Ireland
@Coaching__MC @SportNINet #SportNILearning
Edmondson, A. C. (2004). Psychological Safety, Trust, and Learning in Organizations: A Group-Level Lens. In R. M. Kramer & K. S. Cook (Eds.), The Russell Sage Foundation series on trust. Trust and distrust in organizations: Dilemmas and approaches (p. 239–272). Russell Sage Foundation
Johnson, C. E., Keating, J. L., & Molloy, E. K. (2020). Psychological safety in feedback: What does it look like and how can educators work with learners to foster it?. Medical education, 54 (6), 559-570.
Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of management journal, 33(4), 692-724.
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