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! Trying your hand at improvisation may be the answer.

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.”

My Ultimate Experience of Psychological Safety takes place every Tuesday evening on a stage!

Linking psychological safety with improv

In her book, “The Fearless Organization”, Amy Edmondson (2018) presents a toolkit for building psychological safety. It provides a great scaffold to explore the links between improvisation and psychological safety.

Psychological Safety Category Link to Improvisation
Setting the Scene

Frame the Work

Through the guidance of the director, improv teacher or other players, a clear expectation is set that it is ok to fail and that it is better to step forward and try rather than hang back and remain quiet. You can’t add to a scene by staying in the shadows.
Emphasis Purpose:

We are all here to have some fun, learn from each other and push our limits. When on stage, we also aim to entertain. In the world of improv, this is best done by doing the expected, following your instincts and not trying to be clever. Having an ego and successful improv are a combination for failure.
Inviting Participation

Situational Humility:

No one knows how those few minutes on stage will transpire. Given that there is no script, the only way to succeed is remain in the “here and now”. Improv starts to breakdown when players try to force the action down a preconceived route. It is vital to remain open, and accepting to what emerges in front of you.
Practice Inquiry:

Deep and intent listening is a key to successful improvisation. As a team we build on each other’s ideas, create interconnected stories and from nothing spin a red thread. We also invite contribution to add to the creativity and collective story development.
Structures & Processes:

Each improvisation game has a set of rules within in which the creativity exists. These provide a safety net by making explicit the context of the game and the processes we will follow, together.
Responding Productively

Express Appreciation:
Improvisation is full of offers and acceptances. No matter what your fellow players ‘offer’ or put out there, we acknowledge it, accept it and build on it. Nothing kills the moment like saying “no” or “yes, but”. In improv it is “yes, and..”
Normalise Failure:

Every improv player has had moments of ‘dying on stage’. That is part of the thrill. Through these moments we learn, laugh, dust ourselves off and jump back in. We also do not leave our fellow players hanging. If it is clear that a scene is going nowhere or an idea stalled, we all have responsibility to step in, tap our fellow player on the should as a sign of “it’s ok, I got this”.

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.


Kahn, William A. (1990-12-01). “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work”Academy of Management Journal33 (4): 692–724.

Edmondson, A. C.  (1 June 1999). “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams” (PDF). Administrative Science Quarterly44 (2): 350–383.

Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The Fearless Organization. John Wiley & Sons.

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Comments (1)

[…] to Mark Emdin for this interesting piece that links the experience of Improv to a deeper understanding and experience of psychological safety in a group. I like this point: “Nothing kills the moment like saying “no” or “yes, but”. In […]

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