A story about psychological safety.

A story about psychological safety.

It was June.

It was hot.

Germany had just been kicked out of the world championships, courtesy of South-Korea. Everyone was celebrating and I was… in my car.

The next day, I was to give a session on feedback for a team of 20 people working for an international consultancy organisation, who were on a three-day strategic deep dive in Durbuy. To avoid a four hour drive in the morning, I decided to stay overnight.

To be completely honest with you, I had not exactly been looking forward to this session. My vocation often means having real impact and meeting inspiring people, but it also means:

  • Being in your car for most of the time (Yes, I’m talking to you, Belgian traffic).
  • …or getting up at 5AM (again, Belgian traffic, throwing some serious shade your way).
  • Leaving the house in your pink fluffy slippers because you can’t drive your car in high heels, and then forgetting your high heels at home (which of course, NEVER happened to me, because I’m a professional. But it happened to… a friend of mine. ).
  • Vending machine coffee. I’m not even gonna explain this one.

(Please note that I’m being overly dramatic here for the sake of tension-building in my story.)

But here’s where it gets interesting.

Corporate training in an adventure park

The next morning, when I arrived at the address that was on my briefing sheet, I didn’t see the cookie-cutter corporate meeting district I was expecting. This was my view:

The team had apparently decided to organise their deep dive in an adventure park. We were literally surrounded by escape rooms, tubing slides, kayaks, ziplines, courses in the trees and even bungee jump platforms. I’ve been in a lot of different business environments, but I have to admit this was a first.

The idea that our physical environment has an impact on the way we feel and think is not new. There are plenty of studies telling us that our environments can strongly impact our productivity, accuracy and mood. It even turns out that my mother was right when she told my tantrum-throwing five-year old self to go outside for some fresh air: a change in environment equals a change in mood.

Environment and Psychological Safety

But what this experience taught me is this positive effect extends even beyond the individual level; environment also has an impact on group-level phenomena such as psychological safety. The term was firstly defined by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson as “a the shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”. It’s basically the feeling that you can be yourself without running the risk of getting sacked.

The team members, normally always suited up, were wearing shorts, beach slippers, and smiles. Because of the nature of their jobs, they’re normally quite sceptical towards new content (“has this been scientifically validated?”), but at that moment they were open, willing to share personal experiences and experiment with the techniques we explored during the session, even though that sometimes meant being vulnerable.

In some way or another, the “holiday atmosphere” facilitated a climate of positivity and trust, in which people felt comfortable sharing personal challenges and ‘fail’ stories with their peers and even senior managers. Talking about a strong positive primer!

The session ended with an applause from everyone to everyone, and I drove back home with the windows rolled down, singing Toto’s “Africa” at the top of my lungs, and the feeling that I’d just facilitated the best training of this year so far.

The take-away?

Of course it’s not just about adding plastic crocodiles and palm trees to your strategic offsites as a recipe for success. The content of a session matters too. It just goes to show that a carefree and fun environment can make people care less (see what I did there?) about their professional image, and care more about a “we”-state of mind, being open to new and sometimes challenging ideas. And it might be just the nudge that leads to that breakthrough you were looking for.

So, when you’re planning your next corporate event: maybe consider adding some slides to it. And no, I’m not talking about the Powerpoint ones.

Eva, facilitator and account manager at CUTESolutions

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