Factors Inhibiting Workplace Learning

Last time, I looked at the characteristics of high-performing teams in the workplace. Today’s post on workplace learning will discuss some of the underlying and little-acknowledged factors that can inhibit individual knowledge workers and teams from developing in organizations.

In Psychology of learning for instruction, Marcy Driscoll describes constructivist workplace learning as having

…multiple roots in psychology and philosophy, among which are the cognitive and developmental perspectives of Piaget, the interactional and cultural emphases of Vygotsky and Bruner, the contextual nature of learning, the active learning of Dewey, the epistemological discussions of von Glasersfeld and the paradigm and scientific revolutions of Thomas Kuhn.

(1994, p.375)

In that more granular workplace unit, the team, one of the key factors that inhibits cohesive team development – and by extension knowledge workers’ capacity to continually learn in the workplace – is their sense of psychological safety (Edmondson, 2003).

In her paper Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams (2002) Amy Edmondson asserts that people are “impression managers” (p.1), that is, they are

…reluctant to engage in behaviors that could threaten the image others hold of them. [She has] have found enormous differences across teams in people’s willingness to engage in behavior for which the outcomes are both uncertain and potentially harmful to their image.

For example, a team developing a new product targeted at unfamiliar customers can face considerable technical and business risk. While this can elicit feelings of anxiety in the team, these risks are typically minimized by the usual formal risk assessment methods and explicit discussion of mitigation strategies. However, all individuals in organizations constantly encounter subtler interpersonal and socio-cultural risks that can equally elicit anxiety, but that tend to remain tacit and undiscussed.

For a knowledge worker to act in such risky situations involves learning behavior, including asking questions, seeking help, experimenting with unproven actions, and seeking feedback. Although these activities are associated with such desired outcomes as innovation and performance, (Edmondson 1999; West 2000), engaging in them carries a risk for the individual of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, or perhaps just disruptive.

Most workers feel the need to manage this risk to minimize harm to their image, especially in the workplace and especially in the presence of those who formally evaluate them. One solution to minimizing risk to one’s image is simply to avoid engaging in interpersonal behaviors for which outcomes are uncertain. The problem with this solution is that it precludes learning.


Edmondson posits four specific risks to image that people face at work (see Table 1):

Table 1 Workers’ Psychological Risks (after Edmonson, 2003)

IgnoranceMost of us can think of a time when we hesitated to ask a question because it seemed that no one else was asking, or perhaps we believed that the information was something we were expected to know already.
IncompetenceWhen admitting (or simply calling attention to) mistakes, asking for help, or accepting the high probability of failure that comes with experimenting, people risk being seen as incompetent, whether in a narrow, particular domain, or more broadly.
NegativityTo learn – both as individuals and teams – it is essential to reflect critically on current and past performance. The risk of being seen as negative often stops people from delivering critical assessments of a group or individual’s performance, which limits the thoroughness and accuracy of collective reflection (Edmondson 2002). Moreover, people strive to maintain their own and others’ face, a tendency that inhibits sharing negative feedback. It is well known that bad news rarely travels well up the hierarchy, such that in the presence of supervisors and bosses, the risk of being seen as negative has been shown to be more acute than it might otherwise be (Reed 1962).
DisruptivenessTo avoid disrupting or imposing upon others’ time and good will, people will avoid seeking feedback, information or help (Brown 1990). In particular, individuals are often reluctant to seek feedback about their performance. Despite the gains that can be obtained from feedback (Ashford and Cummings 1983), many fail to take advantage of the opportunity. Although this can be driven by avoidance of the possibility of hearing something we don’t want to hear, it also stems from a wish not to be seen as lacking in self-sufficiency, or as intrusive.

Each of these factors is triggered by particular behaviors through which individuals and groups learn.

Psychological safety describes individuals’ perceptions about the consequences of interpersonal risks in their work environment. It consists of taken-for-granted beliefs about how others will respond when one puts oneself “on the line”, such as by asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea. Edmondson argues that individuals engage in a

tacit calculus at micro-behavioral decision points, in which they assess the interpersonal risk associated with a given behavior (Edmondson 1999). In this tacit process, one weighs the potential action against the particular interpersonal climate, as in, “If I do this here, will I be hurt, embarrassed or criticized?” A negative answer to this tacit question allows the actor to proceed. In this way, an action that might be unthinkable in one work group can be readily taken in another, due to different beliefs about probable interpersonal consequences.


Learning as a team requires coordination and some degree of structure to ensure that insights are acquired from individual team members’ collective experience, which guides subsequent performance. In this context individual learning is a constructive and iterative process, in which actions are undertaken, reflected upon, and continually modified. Argyris and Schön call this process double-loop learning.

Chris Argyris and Donald Schön (Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness, 1974) support the constructivist argument that individuals (and in the context of this article, knowledge workers) have schemata or mental maps both for their skill assets and (they contend) with regard to how to act in situations. This directs the way workers plan their activities, execute their tasks, and how they reflect upon their actions once tasks (or components of larger-scale tasks) are complete. The authors assert that it is these schemata that guide people’s actions rather than the theories workers explicitly espouse. Further, knowledge workers (unlike academics, for example) are typically required to apply their skill- and experience assets in real-world situations which exhibit degrees of uncertainty about both the situation itself and the desired outcomes. Much of the real-world job of the knowledge worker is more concerned with problem setting then problem solving.

To move from a problematic situation to an actual problem, the practitioner must

frame the problem: …determine the features to which they will attend, the order they will attempt to impose on the situation, the directions in which they will try to change it. In this process, they identify both the ends to be sought and the means to be employed.”


This process is what Schön describes as reflective practice. He divides this cognitive process into two subcategories, notions of reflection-in-action, and reflection-on-action. Reflection-in-action has been colloquially described as ‘thinking on your feet’ and involves building new understandings based on previous experiences to predicate actions in the situation that is unfolding at present:

The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation.


Thus, when investigating a situation individuals consider – and use – strategies based upon their repertoire, the situation’s frame of reference, what has gone before and potential outcomes. Michael Eraut in Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence (1994)  negatively criticizes Schön’s evaluation, considering reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action as a iterative process rather than as discrete actions:

When time is extremely short, decisions have to be rapid and the scope for reflection is extremely limited. In these circumstances, reflection is best seen as a metacognitive process in which the practitioner is alerted to a problem, rapidly reads the situation, decides what to do and proceeds in a state of continuing alertness.




Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Driscoll, M. P. (1994). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston, MA. Allyn & Bacon.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly 44: 350-383.

Edmondson, A.C. (2002). Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams. [Internet] Available from: http://www.hbs.edu/research/facpubs/workingpapers/papers2/0102/02-062.pdf [Accessed March 3 2017]

Edmondson, A.C. (2003). Framing for learning: Lessons in successful technology implementation. California Management Review, 45(2), 34-54.

Eraut, M. (1994). Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence. London: Falmer Press.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood-Cliffs, Prentice-Hall.

Reed, W.H. (1962). Upward communication in industrial hierarchies. Human Relations (15) 3-15.

Schön, D. (1984). The reflective practitioner. New York, Basic Books.

West, M.A. (2000). Reflexivity, Revolution, and Innovation in Work Teams. IN: Advances in Interdisciplinary Studies of Work Teams, Vol. 5, 1-29. Greenwich: JAI Press.