If people come to meetings to learn, how can we create the best environment for them to do so? It turns out that trust and safety are prerequisites for optimum learning at meetings. Let’s explore why.
How we learn at meetings
For over twenty years, we’ve known that adults learn 90% of what they need to know to do their job via informal learning. Only about 10% of adult learning involves formal classroom or meeting presentation formats.
Unfortunately, traditional conferences are poor places for this kind of learning to occur, since they’re filled with broadcast-style lectures, during which no interpersonal interaction takes place.
At well-designed meetings, however, participants have plenty of opportunities to engage with peers about topics that are personally important. The key learning modality at such meetings is peer learning.
Peer learning allows anyone to be a teacher and/or a student, with these roles switching from moment to moment. Potentially, everyone has something to contribute and to learn. Peer conferences first uncover the content and issues people want to discuss. They then facilitate appropriate peer learning around topics of interest. My books and this blog provide plenty of information on how to do this.
Of course, in order for peer learning to occur, participants need to share what they know.
And this is where trust and safety issues impact learning.
The importance of trust
Harold quotes philosophy professor Åsa Wikforss:
“It is important to stress that we are all connected through a complicated net of trust. It is not as if there is a group of people, the non-experts, who have to trust the experts and the experts do not have to trust anyone. Everyone needs to trust others since human knowledge is a joint effort…It is well known that low levels of trust in a society leads to corruption and conflict, but it is easy to forget the very central role that trust plays for knowledge. And knowledge, of course, is essential to the democratic society.”
—Åsa Wikforss, Why do we resist knowledge?
Why people may not share their knowledge
Knowledge management author Stan Garfield shares sixteen reasons why people don’t share their knowledge. Here’s a key one:
“They don’t trust others. They are worried that sharing their knowledge will allow other people to be rewarded without giving credit or something in return, or result in the misuse of that knowledge.”
—Stan Garfield, 16 reasons why people don’t share their knowledge
So, when trust is absent, knowledge fails to flow. But when knowledge flow is stemmed, opportunities for trust are reduced. This is a positive feedback loop that guarantees low trust and knowledge sharing.
This breakdown of trust can happen anywhere. Between individuals, in organizations, and at a societal level. And it is easy for it to happen at meetings.
Designing for trust, safety, and learning
In general, the more meeting attendees trust each other, the safer they feel. The safer they feel, the more likely they are to share their knowledge.
So when I design and facilitate meetings, one of my most important goals is to provide a maximally safe environment for sharing. This maximizes the potential for consequential learning.
That’s why I:
- introduce group agreements upfront, one of which has participants keep what individuals share confidential;
- create an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes (or where mistakes are impossible);
- provide ample opportunities for group discussions, rather than lectures, around appropriate content; and
- give people the right to not participate at any time.
The last condition is important. An attendee’s level of trust and feeling of safety may vary from moment to moment during a meeting. Giving attendees the freedom (and responsibility) to decide not to participate and/or share at any time allows them to determine and control what is personally safe to do.
[For more on creating safety at events, see Chapter 17 of my book The Power of Participation.]
Image attribution: Young girl learning spring board diving at outdoor pool by Jacob Lund from Noun Project