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Why is Psychological Safety important?

We live in a complex, fast changing and unpredictable world. To stay competitive, companies need to be more agile, creative and innovative than ever before. This is business school 101. If the landscape in which we do business changes, the ability to change with it becomes the difference between success and failure.

According to a study from Google called Project Aristotle, research shows that psychological safety within the workplace is vital to attract, create and maintain those much needed agile, creative and innovative employees and build a high performing team.

Leaders in pursuit of success are well aware of this, but they may be less familiar with the Improv principles and practices which can hold the key to building and sustaining that much needed psychological safety in the corporate environment.

These techniques are already being taught at leading universities like Harvard and Stanford, and are leveraged by Google, Facebook, Visa, McKinsey and many other industry leaders. So, how exactly is it that Improv can lead to psychological safety at work? 

What is Psychological Safety?

Before we dig into the benefits of introducing Improv to the corporate space, what exactly is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is that reassuring feeling that no one will punish, ridicule, humiliate or reject you: neither you as a person, your ideas nor your efforts to speak up against malpractice.

Psychological safety, or the lack thereof, exists in relationships at work, either between an employee and a manager, between colleagues, within a team or inside a company as a whole.

In essence, you as an employee feel psychologically safe when you are comfortable and encouraged to be yourself and feel safe and encouraged to speak your mind.

Why is Psychological Safety important in the workplace?

 

Today, the threats to psychological safety within the workforce come from a variety of new directions and at an increased rate.

There are geopolitical tensions and unpredictability in the world the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.

And the pandemic and its repercussions on employee mental health are still being felt at the very core of many companies. This influences the psychological safety of employees in many ways. For example:

  • Job insecurity has been – and still is – creating fear in many employees.
  • Working from home has increased the physical and mental distance between employees.
  • Social distancing and lockdown measures have removed or meddled with small tokens of trust and intimacy between colleagues. These can be handshakes, a pat on the back, a smile in the corridor or casual coffee break talk.
  • Companies have, in general, had to work harder to save money and keep productivity up in challenging times. This has led to smaller budgets aimed at team-building events and company wide social gatherings.

The result is a feeling of remoteness, a lack of belonging and an overall ‘colder’ workplace. Colleagues are more distant to one another and internal competition increases.

What are the consequenses?

Since psychological safety is critical for effective team functioning and vital to foster the creativity, innovation and agility companies so badly need, solving issues relevant to psychological safety should be at the top of boardroom agendas.

Yet, many companies in 2022 lag behind when it comes to concrete measures ensuring psychologically safety among their employees. The potential costs to the company are massive.

Employees who feel unsafe at work, perform poorer on pretty much every metric related to business health.

On the other hand, when employees feel safe, motivation skyrockets. They dare to think bigger, resulting in disruptive innovation. They dare to point out flawed processes and challenge the status quo. They break down siloed thinking by speaking up.

This leads to their voice reaching across departments and disciplines, as well as up hierarchies. They also become more comfortable contributing to knowledge sharing. This includes owning and sharing learnings from the mistakes they might make.

Most importantly though, people that feel psychologically safe tend to make people around them feel safe too. This creates an upward spiral that spreads this fundamental building block within the company.

 

How do you foster it?

 

It is obvious that companies need psychologically safe employees more than ever. Less obvious for pressed leaders of large companies, is how to cultivate it.

Unfortunately, the classic 4-episode, 2-minute video tutorial with a multiple-choice test at the end of it, doesn’t cut it. This might work for building awareness around compliance or cyber security threats, but soft skills aren’t made that way. A two-hour PowerPoint presentation by an HR-representative also won’t do.

You build soft skills over time. And for employees to be motivated to build the skill in question, you need to find the practice of building it worthwhile in and of itself. Here is where Improv enters the picture.

What is Improv?

The history of Improv can be traced back to the work of Viola Spolin who, in mid-20th century Chicago, developed improvisation exercises to help integrate immigrant children into society by building social competencies, working on interpersonal communication, empathy and self-understanding.

It has since evolved into a methodology of training that has and continues to inspire and influence modern day entertainment and comedy. In recent years, Improv has also become recognised under the label ‘applied improv’ – where the same exercises are used to build a desirable mindset in high-performing teams in multinational companies in need of diverse and inclusive collaboration. The training is designed to entail a fun, safe and supportive environment.

This is important, because if you have fun while you learn something, you’re more likely to keep doing it. Then the fact that you build vital soft skills at the same time becomes a bonus. To the untrained eye, when trained professionals use Improv techniques to entertain, Improv can look like magic.

Those who have done a couple of Improv classes however, know that pretty much anyone can develop the skills and mindset needed to master it through the right training. This is because there is a structure and a process to Improv, and exercises that when trained and repeated will build the muscle memory, leading to positive behavioral change.

HOW CAN IMPROV BOOST PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY?

Knowing that the fundamentals of Improv can be learned is great news for companies looking to establish and excel in psychological safety. But how is it that doing Improv translates to psychological safety in the workplace?

To be able to master the mindset and behaviour of Improv you need some core guidelines. A philosophy or a methodology, if you like. Fundamentals that you can depend on and implement consistently, especially when complexity kicks in.

Every improviser with respect for the craft has internalised these fundamental behaviours through focused exercises. And it is by internalising and applying these principles that you add essential building blocks for both your own psychological safety and that of people around you. So what are these principles?

IMPROV COMMUNICATION HAS DEFINED THE FIVE GUIDING PRINCIPLES OF IMPROV

 

  • Yes, and…”: The most fundamental principle of Improv. It’s a question about building a non judgemental environment, where people are empowered to articulate their thoughts, being supported and co-creating together. A mentality, where everyone has a mindset of how we can build on each other’s ideas. ‘Yes and…’ is also the mindset of wanting whatever idea is given to you to work to the mutual success of all involved.
  • “Do not judge yourself”: You are more than enough. The uniqueness and diversity of your colleagues is key to the uniqueness of the team. Different backgrounds, preferences, experiences and ways of being, all merge to create something bigger than its parts. Everyone builds on each other’s contribution. It’s like live innovation on steroids.
  • “Do not judge others”: Support is the foundation upon which all good teams are built. Judgment creates a sense of fear. When people feel judged, they put up defensive barriers and hold back valuable ideas. If we allow judgmental attitudes or closed-off mindsets, the team will begin to doubt ideas and feel less willing to share and participate.
  • “Embrace failure”: Research shows that an open attitude towards risk and failure without the consequences of personally being held accountable if you acted in good faith, is vital for psychological safety. By embracing failure through Improv training, participants gain a fearless approach to innovation and problem-solving.
  • “Make each other look good”: The best improvisers make their teammates shine. As with all teams, the sum is greater than its parts. Meaning, egos, as valuable as their talents might be, often come at the cost of the quality of the team output.

Try to imagine a gym with a vast amount of machines all designed to train different muscles. For Improv, there is an equally large range of unique exercises, all designed to enhance and augment the different parts of the above principles.

IMPROV IN BUSINESS

 

So how does internalising Improv principles through Improv training lead to psychological safety at work? First, companies need to understand that, just like building any skill, repetition over time is key.

And it is here companies often fail. Bringing Improv practice into the workplace has to be an ongoing strategy and investment – both financially and in terms of human capital.

Over time, employees, just like anyone else taking Improv classes, will adopt the above principles and develop their associated skills. The results are game-changing. Imagine the following:

  • Team meetings where your manager says: “Yes! And how about we do X as well”? This is not to be confused with blowing budgets on a ping pong table AND an office dog. Everything has its time and place – including a firm “no”. But training to learn how to control that corporate gut reflex to say ‘no’, can result in a massive positive change.

 

  • A company culture where we celebrate mistakes without blame. This is not to be mistaken for doing sloppy work. Quite the opposite. You cannot deliver at the top of your game and come up with disruptive innovations without screwing up occasionally. Even more so, mistakes offer the most powerful potential for learning there is. But only if both individuals and the company own them and direct the energy normally used to find people to blame into figuring out why the mistake happened and how to prevent it from happening again. This practice is the difference between excellence and mediocrity. Also, if a team is functioning optimally, then no decision which results in a ‘mistake’ can be solely on the shoulders of one person.

 

  • Employees who dare to be unique because diversity rather than conformity is valued. This is not to be confused with everyone running off in different directions doing whatever they see fit. But as companies grow, there has traditionally been a desire to make everyone as similar to one another as possible, as this reduces complexity and eases communication. This comes at a cost, though. Uniqueness and diversity are what makes new ideas occur and innovation happen. This is one of the reasons why start-ups are way better at being creative, innovative and agile than larger businesses. Their employees are less polished by company norms and traditions, and are valuable because of it, not despite of it.

 

  • A team mindset where making each other look good is a top priority. This is a far healthier and more efficient way of working than when everyone competes against each other for budgets, promotions and status.

All research on high performing teams speaks to the benefits of a mindset like the above. And in our IMPROV Communication training sessions, we have yet to come across employees who wouldn’t want their everyday work looking more like the listed scenarios.

Yet, we experience again and again, that even though we all want to adapt such behaviors, our basic human reflexes and how most companies are structured, keep working against it. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way. Learning Improv has proven to be a step towards making these scenarios a reality. And best of all, it is a learning process filled with fun.

HOW CAN I LEARN MORE?

If you want to learn more or get in touch with professional Improv trainers that can bring the benefits of Improv into your organisation, contact IMPROV Communication. We specialize in tailoring Improv training programs for any number of participants, at departmental, country and global scales.

 

IMPROV Communication also has accredited practitioners of the Fearless Organisation Psychological Safety Index (PSI). This is a tool built on Harvard Business School Professor Amy C. Edmondson’s more than 20 years of research on the topic of psychological safety in high performing teams. Through surveying your team or organisation, we’re able to assess the current PSI state of your team, and with that data we’ll help your organisation build a curriculum of ‘applied improv’ that educates, trains and fosters a better understanding of psychological safety. We’re thrilled to discuss your requirements and arrange for our skilled Improv trainers to visit you and help nurture psychological safety, create an environment of acceptance and innovation, and elevate your business as a result.

Let’s talk psychological safety and improv together?

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