Feeling safe and supported at work is beneficial for many reasons: including innovation. This feeling is called psychological safety: how people perceive what will happen if they take interpersonal risks. While there’s been a lot of research on the benefits of psychological safety, less is known about how to foster its development. In a new study published in the Journal of Product Innovation Management (1), Anca Metiu (ESSEC Business School) and Jinia Mukerjee (Montpellier Business School) explore how playful behavior practices can generate psychological safety, namely through generating vulnerability and comradeship.
When people feel comfortable speaking up and taking risks at work, that’s when the magic happens: the magic of innovation, that is. This is why psychological safety is so key: it means that people can bounce ideas off each other, even if they aren’t confident in their idea, without being worried about rejection or being judged.
This is good news for modern organizations, who need to be innovating constantly to maintain their competitive advantage. Innovation requires risk-taking and involves unpredictable outcomes and social interactions: this set-up requires psychological safety. In a psychologically safe atmosphere, people will be less concerned about their ideas being met with criticism or resistance, and they can be their authentic selves without damaging their self-image (2). What’s more, employees who feel psychologically safe will also be more comfortable in challenging superiors and taking initiative (3,4,5), which encourages creativity and helps prevent processes from getting stale or an “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation, where leaders’ ideas go unchallenged.
The good news is that recent research has suggested that psychological safety can be fostered through interactions between team members. The research team explored how play could be one strategy, as it encourages positive interactions between colleagues in a less formal, less structured environment.
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” - but what if play can be integrated into the workday? Activities like telling jokes with colleagues or playing a round of table tennis are examples of non-task-related play: their primary goal is fun, they are voluntary, they aren’t related to the task at hand, but they still take place at work. This is the kind of play that the researchers focused on (as opposed to looking at gamification of job duties, for example).
And why play? It’s been linked to desirable outcomes like creativity, positive feelings, and commitment to the organization (6). One aspect that hadn’t yet been explored was how play can positively influence processes that lead to innovation - and the researchers explored the possibility that this was through the development of psychological safety. When people “play” together, they tend to be more relaxed and freed from their work boundaries, which helps them develop trust and stronger interpersonal relationships (7). Once they’ve got this solid base, it’s likely easier to take risks and speak up - in other words, they feel psychologically safe, and can more comfortably engage in behaviors necessary for innovation.
The playing field
The researchers looked at the links between play, psychological safety, and innovation within an Indian high-tech innovation firm. Originally developed as a flight-search tool, this organization is now #2 in India in the online travel industry and has a strong culture of innovation. They also have a playful culture: in their open-office layout, employees often play video games, watch cricket, tell jokes, play table tennis, or come up with games on the cuff like pushing someone around in their office chair. Since it’s an open office, everyone is privy to these playful moments. One of the researchers visited the organization several times, completing over 500 hours of fieldwork, using ethnographic research methods like observation and interviews and even taking part in the fun herself to better understand the process.
During the interviews, the researchers asked the employees questions about their perceptions of their workplace and work processes, what they thought about innovation and play, and impressions on working in groups and collaborations. They noticed a number of patterns emerging. One was that it was possible to break down each play episode into four steps: initiating play, amplifying play, spreading play (when others get involved), and engaging in demonstrative behavior (like getting up to dance or clapping - in other words, displaying happiness and enjoyment). Put together, these practices fostered vulnerability and comradeship, which in turn boosted feelings of psychological safety. More specifically, the researchers noted five components of psychological safety that were bolstered by vulnerability and comradeship:
Feeling safe to voice their ideas and opinions without worrying about what others would think
Mutual respect and believing in each other’s potential and abilities
Sharing and receiving negative feedback and constructive criticism: employees were both able to share this kind of feedback, and did not get defensive when on its receiving end
Supporting each other in taking risks, making mistakes, and learning: employees felt that making mistakes is part of the learning process, and therefore didn’t feel the need to hide mistakes or feel ashamed
Helping one another: seeking and receiving help was the norm, and help was given freely
What’s more is that these processes formed a positive feedback loop - increased psychological safety reinforced the play practices, which then boosted vulnerability and comradeship, which fostered psychological safety, and so on and so forth. These two elements formed a virtuous circle that encouraged innovation. There were four components of innovation that were helped along by increased psychological safety:
Generating new ideas
Finding new collaborators for projects
Tackling tough conversations
Increased effort devoted to completing complex projects
This information gives us a snapshot into how two important outcomes can be developed, namely psychological safety and innovation, through encouraging employees to get in touch with their inner child and play.
With innovation being key to maintaining a cutting edge, and psychological safety pinpointed as a factor that encourages innovation, it’s helpful to organizations to understand how to strengthen both. Allowing and encouraging playfulness at work is one strategy - and managers should keep in mind that a key element of play is its voluntary nature, meaning company-enforced games are not the way to go. Managers can also turn to other tactics to encourage the vulnerability and camaraderie so key to innovation - by divulging personal information themselves, even if it’s embarrassing, they establish a norm that it’s okay to share. Comradeship can be encouraged with other team-building activities. Since the two work together, it’s important to encourage both vulnerability and comradeship in the workplace.
Additionally, it’s not sufficient to just put a foosball table in the breakroom - the organization as a whole needs to have a culture that encourages and supports play, including its work design and a commitment to innovation.
With our world in flux, organizations need to innovate constantly to update their offer for the 21st century customer. The organization highlighted in this research is both innovative and playful, and offers a new kind of organizational set-up that sheds light on how innovative work comes about.
Mukerjee, J., & Metiu, A. (2022). Play and psychological safety: An ethnography of innovative work. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 39(3), 394-418.
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