What does improv have to do with psychological safety, a key part of good workplace culture - Lynn Pilkington comment

Working with other humans is an inevitable part of life, and despite the pandemic’s best efforts, humans continue to be social creatures, capable of language, communication and collaboration.

However, when we cluster together, we do not automatically become efficient or effective teams. As adults, we have adapted to our experiences. In short, we show up in spaces bringing along “baggage”. Along the maturing process, we learned to keep ourselves safe, to hide our mistakes from others, and present our “telephone-voice” self.

Being our authentic self

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Psychological safety counters this. No, it doesn’t mean becoming immature. It refers to creating a space where people can show up as their authentic self, willing to share their questions and mistakes, and embracing a learning mindset.

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This concept has become increasingly popular with high-growth organisations. There are many studies and examples of the link between psychological safety and improved performance, profits and innovation.

Being present now

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Earlier this year I became an accredited facilitator on the topic of psychological safety. I also dipped my toes into the world of improvised comedy, and completed an eight-week-course. Only one of these courses involved performing at a graduate show in a pub as a virtual reality girlfriend. Yet the two had a surprising amount in common.

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Let’s create a better working world for all of us - Lynn Pilkington
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Both psychological safety and improv comedy encourage us to put aside our egos and focus on the group experience, says Ms Pilkington (file image). Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

Firstly, improv comedy is created purely in that moment for that specific audience. In response to a prompt, performers create a show right there and then. Scripts and notes are sacrificed for the beauty of novelty and fun. All improv performers, therefore, need to respond to what is happening in that moment and are forced “out of their head”. Similarly, setting up a culture that is psychologically safe involves tuning in to where the team is at right now.

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It’s not about you

Secondly, it’s not about you. Both psychological safety and improv comedy encourage us to put aside our egos and focus on the group experience. At improv classes and shows, no one is there to be the star performer.

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You prioritise making the spotlight brighter for others, over putting others down to make your own ideas look better. This is connected to the notion that effective leaders and teams allow us to be seen and heard. Collaboration that adds to the ideas of others (“yes, and”) is more fruitful than negotiation (“no, but”).

Curious and open to learning

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Thirdly, psychological safety and improv comedy create safe learning experiences where “failure” is embraced. It’s time to get vulnerable. It’s time for curiosity over punishment. Only by looking under the rock – whether raising self-awareness or considering parts of your business that are certainly not in the annual report – can we grow.

As Salinksy and Frances-White say in The Improv Handbook (2008), ‘‘Want to be better at this game? Play it with an attitude of mild curiosity. Want to be even better? Play it with the same mental attitude, but wear it with an expression of joy, and play it loudly and boldly.”

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Imagine the “game” is business. We could all do with more laughs – and more profits.

Lynn Pilkington, inclusion and engagement consultant at consultancy, training and technology business This Is Milk.

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