Creating a “safe harbor” in your workplace through Action Learning

October 7, 2016

“We’re still meeting!” This was the excited greeting I received from a former CRE Leadership Caucus participant when I ran into her at an event recently. She was referring to her six-person Action Learning team that had been meeting at coffee shops and restaurants to connect and talk through challenges on a regular basis for nearly two years after their Caucus had formally ended. This is great feedback and, happily for me, not uncommon. As someone who creates and runs leadership development programs involving Action Learning, I never get tired of hearing about these still-going teams and the support they provide each other in the sometimes isolating role of being a manager. There is something about Action Learning that sets the group up for a bond that lasts long after the program has ended. The group makes up what Ronald Heifetz might describe as a “safe harbor,” a space where people can be heard, supported, and stretched without hidden agendas and judgments.

But what is Action Learning? And what makes it so compelling for participants?

Action Learning is a powerful, peer-driven learning approach. Participants of our Leadership Caucus and other leadership development programs split up into small groups and each team, facilitated by a CRE consultant, typically meets for three three-hour sessions. Each team member brings a priority challenge to the group (how to be more effective at delegation, for example), and every participant leaves each session with action steps they’ve committed to taking before the next session.

On the surface, the framework seems very basic. But over the years I’ve noticed that within this basic structure, intensive learning occurs and deep connections are made. Team members practice and apply valuable skills like reframing a problem, active listening, and, most importantly, asking powerful questions as they help and support their colleagues with each person’s priority challenges. Of course, not every Action Learning team “gels.” But when teams are working well – which they often do – members create enduring and productive relationships.

There are three aspects of the experience that members of high-functioning Action Learning teams typically identify as key to a successful safe harbor, which anyone can start to incorporate in their workplace:

  • Connection, not isolation. Team members share substantial challenges and struggles with one another and, along the way, often open up about their fears and insecurities. Participants report feeling less isolated because they have a supportive group of peers “in their corner.”
  • Action Learning means active learning. When a participant is being coached by her team, she is learning and reflecting in real time. And you learn as much when it is not your “turn” by asking powerful questions. A recent participant in our Leadership Caucus told me that his entire perspective on supervision had changed since he learned the art of asking powerful questions.
  • An opportunity to be heard and supported. Participants get the rare opportunity of having a team of people focused exclusively on them and their challenges. I’ve heard participants initially describe themselves as feeling guilty about all the attention. “This feels so indulgent,” one participant whispered to me. Many people get over these feelings very quickly!

The journey of being a manager is satisfying but challenging, and it can sometimes feel isolating. Creating a safe harbor through a group of engaged and supportive peers can help any manager successively navigate their journey. That is really what the Action Learning experience is all about.

By Director of Consulting for Strategy and Risk Management, Jeff Ballow.

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