Psychological safety – is this the key to successful teams?

In my quest to help others succeed at innovation, I often challenge people to get out of their comfort zones, expand their knowledge and try something new. I believe that diversity of experiences, curiosity and an appetite for taking risks builds us into better innovators.

I know my clients who are dedicated to improving their creativity and innovation muscles because they are the people who are purposefully striding out of their comfort zones; they are launching themselves from zip wires, standing up and presenting in front of big audiences, taking evening classes on unfamiliar topics – including dissecting mice!

Inspired by my clients I challenge myself to purposefully stride out of my comfort zone too. (Also, I don’t believe you can ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t be prepared to do yourself)

A while ago I thought carefully about what might really put me out of my zone. Doing improv scared me so I signed up for a six-week course. You know like in ‘Whose line is it anyway?’ where the people on stage improvise a scene based on whatever is thrown at them from the audience – hopefully they throw suggestions of scenes and characters rather than physical objects.

It was terrifying. And once I learned to manage the fear it was a massive amount of fun. I also learned a lot about team dynamics and what makes good teams work well together.

Google have recently completed some research into what makes teams successful. It took them 2 years and involved 180 teams*. They highlight 5 traits of successful teams. The fifth trait is what they call psychological safety.

“Imagine a situation in which everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. A culture where managers provide air cover and create safe zones so employees can let down their guard. That’s psychological safety.”

Psychological safety is exactly the environment that a good improv team operates in. This environment is created by several fundamental rules.

1.The rule of ‘yes and’ This means that improvisers build on whatever the audience, the host or your team on stage with you ‘offers’. If someone shouts out that you are a camel with one hump on a holiday to Wales – you do it, if your host chooses that you are Hitler learning to use the internet – you do it and if your team-mate plays out being a frog auditioning for the next episode of Froggy the fattest frog on the lily pad (even if you don’t really know what that is) – you do it. The rule of ‘yes and’ means that you can’t fail, because someone else in your team will always ‘yes and’ your suggestion.

2.The rule of ‘your team has your back’ This means that whatever you do, for example if you freeze, fall off stage or even if you say something obscene your team has your back. As an improviser, your only failure is not stepping up to make the others in your team look good. If your team mate freezes, you step in with a line to help them out, if they fall off stage, help them up and make it part of the scene, if they say something obscene, ‘yes and’ their obscenity. You are in it together. When you know your team unconditionally has your back, something wonderful happens. You start to take more risks and you start to explore new opportunities.

3.The rule of ‘just do it’ This means that you just say the thing that comes into your head. Don’t filter, don’t overthink, don’t worry that it’s not funny, or appropriate or expected – just say it. If you say something (you think) is stupid it’s your team’s job to ‘yes and’ and make you look good. When we stop paying attention to our inner critic that inhibits our ability to ‘just do it’, a truly liberating thing happens and our creativity flows. Ideas get built upon and you often end up in an unexpected place that no one would have even dreamed of.

These three rules combine to create a powerful force. In a team, they create a high degree of trust, built from real experiences. High trust means that we start to feel more confident and less afraid of failure because the only failure is not stepping up and having your teams back. You don’t worry so much about what others think because you are focused on what success looks like and you are in it together. And when you are free of the constraints of what you should do, free from the fear of rejection and criticism by your colleagues when your focus is on helping others, in return creativity abounds, we have fun and energy is high.

Imagine the possibilities if we applied the rules of improv to our teams? What might that feel like? What new ideas might emerge? What better results might we achieve?

If you’d like some help to develop your team’s psychological safety then drop me a line.

And if you’d like a go at improv, check out the fabulously talented gang at Hoopla.

*Thank you, Dawn, for the inspiration for this blog.

2 thoughts on “Psychological safety – is this the key to successful teams?

  1. The times have changed — in some respects.
    In professional contexts people have far too often been too scared of making mistakes.

    I could have blackmailed my doctor boss after I pointed out that the specific injection should have been given in a way that it acted more slowly. What he had done was wrong, and the traveller (and his predecessors) probably had an unexpected short sharp fever as a result but no long term harm.

    In higher education where I was the only person in the department with a higher degree, ‘too expensive’ (in Margaret Thatcher’s category) doing anything became wrong.

    Then in 1986, I was hired i an amazing computer shop. In spite of its very talented leader (director’s wife) it could not survive and went down a year later. I assessed its vulnerability from the beginning. However, I was free to make mistakes and it allowed me to do things I have never done before. I didn’t need to feel anxious when they didn’t work perfectly.

    The shop’s computer system was down for most of the time when the directors went to India three day after I had arrived. The dongles at the back reset every time they moved significantly. They had sacked the previous operator.

    I was incredibly productive during my few months at that shop.

    I came away more confident than ever and was able to take some very worthwhile risks much more easily.

    It is not just teams that work better in psychological freedom, but individuals too.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I agree, and they are interconnected – a team is a group of individuals and as an individual many of us at some points need someone else to give the permission – or backing – or encouragement to try new things and make mistakes.

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