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ATD Blog

Studying the Importance of Psychological Safety in Learning Transfer

Friday, March 5, 2021

One of my professional goals for 2021 is to build my instructional system design skills by emphasizing learning transfer. In 2020, I completed more than100 hours of coach training, which taught me much about psychological safety. Now, I want to combine that knowledge of psychological safety with a deep dive into learning transfer research.

Shane Snow, the author of Dream Teams, wrote an article in Forbes that explained how psychological safety works. “In a team environment, what psychological safety actually means [is] that you know that things you say and do won’t be used against you . . . as long as you’re not being malicious. [italics in original]”

As we all know, learning means taking risks and failing on the way to success. In my project management classes, I often talk about how my failures as a new project manager taught me much and even gave me the confidence to continue developing my project management skills. All this was possible because I worked with a team with whom I felt safe enough to take risks and try new things. Without psychological safety, learning doesn’t happen.

1999: Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams

Amy Edmondson’s 1999 research article was a landmark study in psychological safety. She studied 51 work teams in a manufacturing company. Her work established the necessity of psychological safety as the foundation for effective team learning. Teams with high psychological safety had a “climate of safety and supportiveness” that enabled the team members “to embrace error” and “to seek feedback.” Edmondson’s work established a direct link between psychological safety, team learning, and team performance. The higher the psychological safety, the better the team learns and the better its performance.


2018: Psychological Safety and Learning Organizations

Nineteen years later, Edmondson published The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. She reconfirmed the importance of psychological safety in learning by writing that for “knowledge work to flourish, the workplace must be one where people feel able to share their knowledge! This means sharing concerns, questions, mistakes, and half-formed ideas.” Twenty years of research and experience, including the famous 2012 Google Aristotle Project , has reinforced the importance of psychological safety in team and organizational learning.


12 Levers of Transfer Effectiveness: The Role of Psychological Safety

The next step is to determine how psychological safety contributes to learning transfer. In her 2018 book What Makes Training Really Work, Ina Weinbauer-Heidel defines learning transfer as “the extent to which trainees effectively use the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they have acquired in the training context in the work context.” Weinbauer-Heidel quotes Brinkerhoff’s findings that only two out of 12 trainees successfully transfer their training. Eight of the 12 trainees fail at training transfer while the remaining two trainees don’t even try.

Weinbauer-Heidel argues there are 12 levers of transfer effectiveness. Of the 12 levers, these seem most related to psychological safety:

  • The trainees’ transfer motivation
  • The clarity of expectations in the training design
  • Active practice in the training design
  • Support from supervisors in the organization
  • Support from peers in the organization
  • Transfer expectations in the organization

Each lever depends on the trainee taking risks in their learning and how their team and organization support them. In the following months, I hope to establish stronger links between the transfer levers and psychological safety.

About the Author

Dr. William Brantley works in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Enterprise Training Division. He is the manager of the Supervisor Certification Program. Dr. Brantley is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Maryland and the University of Louisville.

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Bill, I authored a contribution for ATD a while ago. It mentions the notion of creating safe training environments. I work as a trainer in behavioral health. We include concepts of trauma informed care in all of our trainings. Understanding the potential that engaging in training, online or in person, might carry some trauma for some learners is important. A return to classrooms post Covid, definitely requires safety awareness, as people gather again publicly. Safety in many ways is important.
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Bill, please let me know how I can support you. I am very interested!
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This sounds fascinating I can't wait to hear more on this, Bill. Wishing you the best of luck with your research.
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