Challenger Safety: As an Instructor, don't I lose control?

- english gareth lock just culture leadership psychological safety Mar 05, 2022

I was recently asked, “As an instructor, how do you encourage challenger safety without putting the essential leadership of the instructor's role in danger?” This is a very important point and so I am going to dedicate a blog to answer it. This ended up a bit longer than expected, but I know it is worth it to bring all the points together as they roll on from one another.

The first part is to recognise that as an instructor, you are leading a team that is undertaking educational development – improving knowledge, technical and non-technical skills. As you are part of that team, you are also going to be (or should be) learning. Classes should not just be about imparting your knowledge and experience to the students so that they can pass it, the class is also about you improving yourself in your own knowledge and performance and learning from your students.

Both students and instructor, leader and followers, are revolving around a common purpose of improvement. If you are instructing with the premise that "I am going to teach the students how to pass this course, and I don’t need to learn anything new", then you are not going to be creating an environment of psychological safety and you are creating a barrier to your own development too.

What is Psychological Safety?

“Psychological safety is an environment of rewarded vulnerability” – Dr Timothy Clark.

What does rewarded vulnerability mean? At its most basic level, it means that you are not going to feel shame, awkwardness, ridicule, blame, or any other negative feelings when you ask a question, make a mistake, contribute to the conversation, or challenge the status quo. It is not just a one-to-one issue (trust), it also relates to members of the team and how they will influence your internal feelings.

Dr Amy Edmondson describes the internal decision-making process we take when in uncertain social situations: We weigh up the benefits and consequences of speaking up or contributing to the conversation now versus staying quiet. If we speak up now, the consequences are immediate and we might end up feeling stupid, but if we stay quiet, the problem might go away, and no one will know that there was an issue.

For example, a student on a course might notice that the instructor isn’t doing his pre-dive checks properly, hasn’t demonstrated a skill correctly by forgetting part of the sequence or is giving a presentation where the material is not aligned with current scientific thinking or there is a known problem with it. This is not likely to be intentional, instructors make mistakes too.

The student has a ‘choice’. ‘Choice’ is in inverted commas because often it is not a conscious choice, it is based on previous direct experiences, observed experiences, or experiences heard from others. 

  • How well does the instructor take critique or feedback?
  • How well does the team know each other?
  • Did anyone else notice?
  • What are the consequences and how recoverable is the situation?
  • Do I understand the issue, so am I correct in my thoughts?

Do these sound familiar to you? If so, this is what psychological safety is all about. If the wrong ‘choice’ is made and we get a psychologically threatening response (sarcasm, being ignored laughed at), then the feelings we create inside us are like those when physical pain is experienced. As such, we engage a defensive mechanism, we stop engaging and learning.

The Four Stages

What Dr Timothy Clark has shown is that psychological safety exists in four stages and that you can’t easily access the upper levels until the lower levels are in place. The four stages are:

  • Feel safe to be part of the team.
  • Learning safety. Feel safe to make a mistake.
  • Contributor safety. Feel safe to contribute.
  • Challenger safety. Feel safe to challenge the status quo in good faith.

The following four sections will look at what each stage means in a little more detail and then give examples of how to reward acts of vulnerability. These come from the work of Dr Timothy Clark and


This is where we feel part of the group or team. We often do this by being part of a ‘tribe’.

  • Open circuit diver, side-mount diver, CCR diver, technical diver.
  • PADI, BSAC, GUE, TDI, IANTD…diver.
  • Student, instructor, instructor trainer, course director.
  • Male, female.
  • Young, old.
  • Nationalities

There is significant research that looks at the positive and negative behaviours associated with being in-group or out-group. We break these negative behaviours down by being inclusive. We are all divers. In a class, we are all learning. At its most fundamental level, we are all human and should be treated with respect and dignity. We create inclusion by demonstrating it. 

Some examples of how to create inclusion safety. 

Introduce yourself at the first opportunity​. Be proactive to introduce yourself to those who are new, or you don’t know. Once you break down these introductory barriers and display warmth and acceptance, a sense of inclusion forms rapidly.

Listen and pause. ​We tend to listen to answer rather to comprehend. Do the opposite, listen to understand and you do this by listening, pausing to reflect, and then responding thoughtfully. Have you ever been talking to someone, and you can tell that they’re simply waiting for you to finish your sentence so they can jump in? That’s not always a problem, but if it becomes a regular thing, it needs to be addressed.

Define and communicate the purpose and values of your team​. To feel a part of the team, the individual must understand why the team exists, how it works, and what it stands for. The team must first define its values, purpose, and goals and continuously communicate those things to team members. In the diving instructional setting, this should be about learning from each other to prepare everyone in the team to dive in the real world, not to just pass a class.

Follow through on small commitments​. If you make a commitment, follow through, especially if it’s a small one. Sweating the small stuff is an expression that you respect and value in others.


Learner Safety

This is aligned with our inherent want and needs to improve. To improve, we have to push physical and psychological boundaries and that means that physical and cognitive mistakes will be made. If you are in a training environment, it is even more likely you’ll make mistakes, that is why you are on the course. Instructors sometimes struggle with the curse of knowledge. You know more about the topic than the students, and you forget how little they know. We make assumptions all the time during classes. I know I do, and I talk about them to my students. Importantly, we have a tendency to subconsciously look for learner safety before we expose ourselves to making a mistake. How was someone else treated? Positively or negatively?

Some examples to improve learner safety

Share past mistakes​. It’s hard to learn from mistakes if a team has a culture that hides its mistakes. Take the opportunity to mention some of your mistakes, joke about them, and share what you learned from them. This will encourage others to be more comfortable sharing their mistakes and trying to learn from them. Talking about failure and showing vulnerability are crucial to encourage others to learn. I know that this is hard because of potential litigation. If you can’t talk about recent and relevant mistakes, how do you expect your students to do the same? 

Ask questions to trigger learning​. Asking a question is the trigger that starts the learning process. When we ask a question, we catalyse the learning process for ourselves and for those whom we are asking. Encourage students to ask meaningful questions to push their thinking, skills, and experience. Learning is a two-way process, not just students receiving only. A question might come from your students that you had never thought about and that will force you to learn. Don’t dismiss it with ‘Because that is the way it is’.

Dedicate time and resources to learning​. If you talk about the importance of learning but don’t actually develop yourself by investing time and money, it’s really not a priority. Set aside time each year for targeted learning. It might be online, in person, as an individual or as part of an instructional or dive team. When you complete this learning, think about sharing your experience. The easiest way to reinforce learning is to teach someone else about it.

Explain formal vs. informal learning​. Diver training is often seen as just completing a class. However, most of the learning we do in life is informal and this aligns with the recent blog about experience – experience is built from varied dives, in varied conditions, with varied goals, with varied outcomes and consistent debriefing and reflection. As an instructor, help your students understand that in the long run their personal informal learning habits will make all the difference.


Contributor Safety

As part of the process of improving, we want to be able to use the knowledge and experiences from our teams, and that includes the students in our classes. None of us is as bright as all of us together. As an instructor, you cannot know everything. Use your students to fill the gaps. At this level, there is an expectation from the team members that they can contribute their knowledge/experience, and if the instructor has created the right environment, there is an expectation from the team that contributions will happen. The difficulty exists in drawing the boundaries given the tight schedules that most classes are run to. The instructor manages this by explaining why a line is being drawn under that topic for now but it isn’t ignored and can be followed up later.

Contributor safety examples

Celebrate small success. ​Small successes increase confidence and build momentum. Be encouraging and supportive with students, especially when they are struggling. When students see that they are making progress, it enthuses them and others and creates a sense of forward motion – video is a great way to show this. Complete small regular debriefs with your students to show where they are on their journey to meeting their learning objectives – don’t wait until the end of the class! You can ask for specific, targeted feedback at these stage too. Remember, the class is about your improvement too.

Set ground rules.​ At the outset of the class, set practical terms of engagement with your team tied to your goals and values. Once team members know the ground rules, they will be more likely to engage because they know what’s expected. For example, start times, in-water times, always have a reflective and critical debrief, no one talks twice until everyone has talked once.

Don’t ignore contributions. When a contribution is made, don’t ignore it. Think about what was said, why it was said, and why it was important for them to contribute in the manner they did. If you ignore it, and the listener knows you’ve ignored it, then you punish vulnerability.

Report your own mistakes and errors​. It seems like an unnatural act to voluntarily report your own mistakes and errors, but the leaders that do earn deep trust with their teams and discourage team members from hiding errors. We all make mistakes and commit errors in the course of doing our jobs. The leaders who have the courage to share their mistakes are simply acknowledging what we all know--that humans make mistakes. The more a team follows this behaviour, the faster it corrects mistakes and increases its contribution.


Challenger Safety

Within effective teams, challenges come from a position of good intent and good faith. They are not malicious, and they are not there to stroke the ego of the person challenging. They are there to improve the team’s performance. This is something you can frame when setting the ground rules. The basic idea behind challenger safety is that the leader (instructor) provides ‘air cover’ for those in the team to speak up and challenge the status quo. “We’ve always done it this way” is a terrible concept to apply, especially in a hazardous activity like diving where anyone should be able to thumb a dive at any time for any reason, and that includes before you’ve got in the water!

In the instructional setting, Challenger safety might appear to undermine the role of the leader because it might derail the class in terms of time or knowledge. This is where the concept of revolving around a common purpose comes to the fore – we are all learning. If the purpose of the challenge is to help improve learning, it is welcome. As an instructor, you must be able to explain the rationale behind the decisions and actions you make or take. It isn’t enough to say, “Because that is what is in the materials.” If you are afraid of being challenged this way, you might want improve your own learning.

Ways to improve challenger safety

Respond constructively to disruptive ideas and bad news​. Your positive emotional response to disruptive ideas and bad news is a clear signal that you have a high tolerance​ for candour and will protect your team in their right to dissent.

When you reject feedback, explain why​. When you reject a team member's input or suggestion, explain why you didn't take the suggestion on board. Your considered response will strengthen that individual’s resolve to continue giving feedback and challenging the status quo.

Model vulnerability​. Remember that vulnerability is exposing yourself to the possibility of harm or loss. If you model and reinforce a pattern of vulnerability, others will do the same.

Define what is in and out of scope​. Define what can and should be challenged based on what the team are going to be doing. This will prevent the ensuing frustration when team members challenge out-of-scope or irrelevant issues and use up the precious time in a class.

Publicly acknowledge and reward challenges. If one of the team has questioned the status quo, or decided to thumb a dive, even before getting in, reward them for being vulnerable. There are too many cases where the sunk cost fallacy (the more time/money/reputation I have invested, the harder it is to say no) takes precedence over safe decisions in diving. As an instructor, you set the tone.



As I said at the start, this ended up as a much longer piece than planned! However, I think it is worthwhile to see how vulnerability can be rewarded at each level, especially when it comes to Challenger safety. A simple thing to remember, as a leader or instructor, you cannot be neutral when it comes to creating and supporting psychological safety. You are either supportive by rewarding acts of vulnerability or you are punishing those acts of vulnerability. By staying quiet and not engaging, you are punishing those around you who have been vulnerable.

In terms of helping improve diving safety, psychological safety is about being proactive by encouraging issues to be raised before they are critical. It is different to a Just Culture which is how we respond after an adverse event. Psychological safety supports a Just Culture, not the other way around.

Psychological safety perishes over time. It requires constant nurturing and tendering, like a gardener making sure that the plants are getting their nutrition and are free from weeds. As an instructor, you need to be taking more of a gardener's position rather than an authoritarian one.


Gareth Lock is the owner of The Human Diver, a niche company focused on educating and developing divers, instructors and related teams to be high-performing. If you'd like to deepen your diving experience, consider taking the online introduction course which will change your attitude towards diving because safety is your perception, visit the website.