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When Have You Really Experienced Psychological Safety?

Much is written these days on psychological safety, and most is great content. I even made a video blog linking how designing high performing teams can create the conditions contributing towards psychological safety. But here is my question, when have you been part of a team or group where there was absolute and total psychological safety? If you are like me, not that often!

Let me share with you my latest experience, and how this showed me what psychological safety looks and feels like.

There are many formal definitions of psychological safety, and all have similar overtones. Psychological safety is being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image or status (Kahn 1990). It can be viewed as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In such psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted, supported and respected.

In short, the ability to fail, get things wrong, make mistakes, collectively learn from them and become a better team.

Over the last few weeks I have been taking an improvisation class. Not for the first time, but the last was quite a few years ago. For 2 hours each week, a group, who started out as strangers, come together to enjoy the “thrill” of creating something out of nothing. For those not familiar with improvisation, teams step up onto the stage to act out a scene which is completely unplanned. In its purest form, the dialogue, action, story, and characters are created collaboratively by the players as the improvisation unfolds in real time, without use of an already prepared script. Topics, characters or scenarios are “thrown at the team” who incorporate these into their scene.

To the outsider it might look like organised chaos, however there are a number of principles which bind the team and create an environment where failure is not only ok, but encouraged. As Trista Mrema, our class teacher says “let go of ‘how it’s supposed to be’, dare to ‘look silly’, make mistakes, fail and play and fail and play…and then wash it all down with a fresh pint of fun.”

I have always been drawn to the quote by Carl Reiner “A brilliant mind in panic is a wonderful thing to see”. It is why I enjoy bringing elements of improvisation into the rooms of the teams I work with. Apart from the joy that comes with playing, there are many lessons that can be learned and experiences which can then be taken back to into the day to day work of the team.

And if you want to live on the edge for a moment and experience the fun of improv, there are plenty of places to safely try it out. For those in Amsterdam, check out Easylaughs. This link also provides details of other Improv companies around the world.


If you are interested in Mark Emdin's work, please click HERE.


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