In elementary school, we probably all had few teachers who said, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.” And, as kids, every time we heard that line, there was a collective eye roll. But in spite of the inherent snarkiness of adolescence, the point was made: No one deserves to be ridiculed for being curious. It’s a good rule. And it’s one way that teachers create what’s known as psychological safety in their classrooms. The intent is to foster a space where students can feel confident that no one will embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up.
As adults, psychological safety is equally important, especially in the workplace. No one should be ridiculed for thinking, even if the logic is faulty. Bad ideas, like dumb questions, are part of the creative process. Without bad ideas, good ideas would be scarce. As the great American scientist Linus Pauling once said, “The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.”
Google, in a quest to build the perfect team,
studied the dynamics of various groups and found that psychological safety is actual critical to a team’s productivity and success. Unfortunately, they also discovered that there’s no simple recipe for nurturing psychological safety within a team. Unlike grade school, it’s not as easy as authoritatively announcing “There’s no such thing as a dumb idea” to generate an accepting atmosphere.
But Google found that honest personal interactions—ones that go beyond small talk, work and the not-always-100-percent-authentic professional persona—help create stronger bonds within working teams. Like any personal relationship, sharing real-life concerns builds trust. And if we trust the people around us, we aren’t as afraid to take risks in front of them.
Herein lies the core of what we do at The Go Game. We strive to design activities that move people beyond office conversation and work personalities. We’ve noticed that if we edge individuals a little beyond their comfort zones, especially while working together, they’ll see a new side of their fellow team members, one that’s more personal and real, one they’re able to more genuinely trust and respect—two key components in any healthy relationship.
How to Help Build Psychological Safety at Work
Of course it’s not every day that an organization can commit the time needed for an off-site team-building experience, so what can be done routinely in the workplace to foster psychological safety?
One way to gain new insight into someone is to learn about his or her personal life goals. Encourage people to post (either on an intranet or a bulletin board in the office, something everyone can access) a short list of five things they hope to do someday. These goals might range from visiting a castle in Scotland or reading The Brothers Karamazov to sky diving or learning how to bake bread. Discovering the dreams of others, encouraging our colleagues to pursue them and watching as things get ticked off the list can create ongoing conversations that delve into the personal without being awkward.
The Family Style Meal
Researchers have found that sharing a meal can create a special kind of camaraderie. A recent study focused on firefighters who prepare and share meals together at work. The firefighters reported that this tradition helps their teams operate together effectively and that sharing food makes them feel like a family. This research could translate easily into any office environment by implementing a shared lunch periodically. Ideally, it’s a meal prepared on site together, served family style and eaten together. But, if the office lacks a kitchen, try starting a lunch club—where members take turns selecting where to go—or hosting a potluck lunch at the office, where each person contributes a dish that would, hopefully, stretch people beyond their normal eating habits and generate an atmosphere similar to what the firefighters experience for a new kind of camaraderie.
The better we understand and know someone, the more likely we are to find common ground and be able to trust him or her, be supportive and enjoy working together in a collaborative way.