The year between high school and college, I got a job at a housewares store called The Hammock Way at the local shopping center.

The store carried hammocks of all kinds, plus various indoor and outdoor housewares. It was a fun shop, located in a prime spot in the mall, right in between the two flagship department stores.

It felt like a big step up for me, coming from my previous job working at a cookie store.

And indeed, I learned many things in that job:

  • I learned how to work a high tech (for the 1980s) register (needless to say, useless to me now!)
  • I learned about merchandising
  • I learned that I’m not cut out for retail (especially during the holiday season)
  • And perhaps, most importantly, I learned a lot about psychological safety, from being immersed in a psychologically unsafe environment

At the time, I had no words for what was I was experiencing. In fact, it wasn’t until years later that William Kahn coined the term “psychological safety” to describe the condition of being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.

All I knew was that I dreaded going to work. 

The days when my assistant manager, Sarah, was in charge were fine. She was gentle and patient.

But when the store manager, Karen, was working, everyone felt like we were walking in a mine field, never knowing what would set her off.

I’ll never forget the day she called me over to teach me to use the register.

I wanted to do a good job, but I was not catching on quickly, and my eagerness to please was like a stumbling block impeding my ability to think clearly.

Karen would demonstrate something once, then insist that I try it. And if I wasn’t sure, or made a mistake, instead of simply showing me again or correcting me, she’d look down her nose at me, raise an eyebrow, and say in the most shaming voice imaginable, “Nooooooooo….”

Then she’d glare at me, waiting, while I sweated, and all rational thought left my brain.

Most days she’d snap at me or shame me. Usually both.

I felt stupid, incompetent, and worthless.

(And yet I stayed in this awful job for close to a year!)

Is it any wonder I showed as little as possible of myself when I walked in the door for work each day? 

I didn’t feel accepted or respected, and there was no way I felt safe enough to take any risks.

The Hammock Way went out of business decades ago, but even thinking of my time there still makes me clench up.

And the complete lack of psychological safety — even though I was just a retail sales clerk — strikes me as not just coincidental to the business’s demise.

As Timothy R. Clark points out in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety:

If you conduct a postmortem analysis of failure for almost any commercial organization that dies, you can trace the cause of death to a lack of [psychological] safety. For example, why did Kodak, Blockbuster, Palm, Borders, Toys “R” Us, Circuit City, Atari, Compaq, Radio Shack, and AOL fail? They lost their competitive advantage by failing to innovate, but why? These organizations were filled with large numbers of highly intelligent people, and yet they all fell prey to competitive threats that were hiding in plain sight… They allowed the status quo to fossilize and would not allow themselves to change it.

Fertilizing Creativity

Clark may have put his finger on one reason that 60% of CEOs globally cited creativity as the most crucial factor for future success.

Creativity drives innovation, which is what companies need to stay competitive.

But creativity doesn’t just spring from nothing, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

If you want people to contribute creative ideas…

And just as important, if you want people to challenge the status quo, so you don’t become the next Blockbuster…

…you’ve got to give them a psychologically safe environment.

As Clark lays it out, you must help them feel:

1) Included
2) safe to learn
3) safe to contribute
4) safe to challenge the status quo
All without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

Low psychological safety has costs. Any organization that wants performance and innovation needs high psychological safety.

In fact, Google’s Project Aristotle studied 180 of its teams and determined that psychological safety was the single most important factor in explaining high performance.

Psychological Safety in Virtual Spaces

“But what about psychological safety in a virtual setting?” you ask.

Non-verbal cues are stripped away, distractions are rife, and it’s so easy to feel isolated when we’re separated by a glass screen and a “Brady Bunch” grid.

The good news is that, despite these challenges, virtual platforms offer some great opportunities.

In fact, many of the same techniques I’ve used for years to help people feel psychologically safe to try new things in the realm of art and music (where most folks feel scared to take risks for fear of humiliating themselves) are still part of my toolkit working with business teams today — 100% virtually. 

As an applied improvisation practitioner, I teach the principles of improv, including these:

1. Accept and build (“Yes, and…”)

Often misinterpreted as meaning that improvisers literally say “yes” all the time, what this principle really means is that we accept the reality of whatever our scene partner has just said or created, and build on it.

In a work setting, this means allowing each team member to speak, validating their ideas, and finding something positive to build on. It means fostering a culture of encouragement and positivity, rather than shutting people down.

2. There are no mistakes, only opportunities

When we’re afraid of making a mistake, we shut down, choke up, stop taking risks.

When we approach our time/our team/our company with the attitude that mistakes are actually opportunities, it opens us up to try things. Mistakes are not something to hide from or be embarrassed by, but instead something to learn from.

Who knows what that mistake opportunity might lead to?

3. Make your partner look amazing

In psychologically unsafe spaces, it’s easy to fall into the trap of one-downing other people, sabotaging them, or giving them back-handed compliments.

A highly functional team needs the opposite approach, where partners not only have each others’ backs, but they work to make each other look great. The best leaders help each person on the team become the best versions of themselves.

These improv principles are “platform-agnostic.” The activities I use with my F.U.N. Method™ in programs like Communicating for Influence, or custom-designed trainings and offsites, are based around these principles, and designed for virtual.

(Come to an upcoming Learning Lab to get a hands-on taste!)

Unlike my terrible manager from The Hammock Way, my goal is to help people lean into uncertainty, take risks, and expand their creativity.

First order of business: help everyone feel safe.


Interested to learn more? Message me to chat about how I can use my signature system to help your employees infuse connection, joy and delight into virtual meetings, trainings and events at your workplace.

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