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  • Nick Myles

Psychological Safety: What leaders can learn from from actors

Imagine stepping onto a stage, lights glaring, hundreds of eyes fixed on you and your team. There's no room for fear, and the only way forward is to trust implicitly in everyone who helped bring you to this moment. This is the world of an actor, a world where psychological safety is a necessity for performance. So, what can leaders learn from the world of theatre to enhance their own teams?

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological Safety, extensively researched by Business Psychologist Amy Edmondson, describes the ability of a team, individual, or group to feel comfortable taking risks or making mistakes in the pursuit of innovation, without fear of reprimand. It's a crucial factor in high performance and preventing costly organisational errors.

In a nutshell, psychological safety gives your team or employees the confidence to step into the unknown, build value, and perform beyond the sum of their parts.

So, what have Actors got to do with Psychological Safety?

When was the last time you were fully engaged, moved or fixated on some kind of performance? It could have been at the theatre, on Netflix, even at the circus or watching a street show.

For an audience to immerse themselves in a story or a dramatic moment, a lot has to happen. Performers must embrace the vulnerability of being under the scrutiny of the spotlight and connect with potentially hundreds of audience members. To do this it's vital they trust in themselves and the team around them. That's why, in theatre, the rehearsal process is so much more than learning lines and not dropping the props.

The rehearsal process is a key component in building trust and Psychological Safety amongst cast and crew. It's only when a team made of varied professionals; technicians, producers, a director, a writer, stage managers and actors, can innovate on behalf of each other and on behalf of the audience that the magic happens.

So what techniques are used in theatre to build psychological safety and how could you leverage these ideas and takeaways for your team or group?

Openness, honesty and speaking up

Through working extensively with professional actors, what I have the greatest respect for is an actor's ability to both accept and give direct, honest feedback. Whether it is performance notes from a director, feedback from a casting agent or simply development feedback between peers. Actors seem to have an ability to gladly accept comments on their performance simply as a means of ensuring they become the best they can be.

However, being open and honest isn’t about harsh criticism or expecting your team to meekly accept hurtful remarks. Far from it. In my personal experience, a rehearsal process is a highly intentional opportunity to get to know who you are working with, to familiarise yourself with the personalities, the preferences and the sometimes fears of your team.

Knowing your team member’s priorities puts you in an ideal position to better communicate feedback in a way that most benefits your team. This comes back to a fundamental skill in impactful communication - know your audience and adapt your message to fit them.

So how do actors do this? Well just like any tight knit team, they find opportunities to bond. This might be through splitting a big cast down into smaller focus groups who work together to rehearse specific moments. Often, directors can also be found asking what kind of feedback an actor needs and what they want to develop to enhance a scene. Essentially, it is about creating a culture in which direct and honest feedback is delivered in the most impactful way and always in service of something bigger, in this case the performance, the audience or the commitment to one’s craft.

As a leader, you may wish to consider what might your version of a rehearsal process process with your team be?

How well you know your team members preferences when it comes to engaging them in the most impacful way. You may wish to think about how you can rolemodel behavioiurs around seeking feedback. This might look like regularly asking for feedback from your team, encouraging dialouge around giving and receiving feedback or sharing any targets you're looking to achieve.

The following elements can often be useful to consider in communicating feedback.

Impactful feedback:

  1. comes from a place of good intention

  2. matters significantly

  3. remains honest and sincere

  4. Is consensual (ie, “Can I share some feedback with you?”)

  5. offers clear steps for improvement

  6. Is provided at the right moment

  7. Is detailed and to the point

  8. Is shared in a confidential setting unless permission is given otherwise

  9. Reflects your own viewpoint, rather than third-party opinions

  10. Encourages a dialogue, not just a monologue

  11. Is concentrated and direct

  12. Targets actions and outcomes, not personal traits or mannerisms

  13. Blends constructive critiques with positive reinforcement


While we often talk about going to watch a play, we rarely reflect on the meaning of the word. For actors (and I would argue, for everyone) we are at our most productive and creative when in a state of ‘play’. Much like being in a state of ‘flow’, the ability to play maximises productivity, resourcefulness and motivation while circumnavigating concerns people may have about being scrutinised or judged. You can read more about the benefits of a ‘flow/play’ state in this article from Harvard Business Review.

When it comes down to it, even the most serious of dramas, or the most esteemed of actors employ the ability to play when they perform. When we play, we understand that we are taking risks, being creative and testing the rules within the safety of a game. From early childhood, play prepares us for real world situations but it also help us explore the way we relate to the people and dynamics that surround us. Playing helps us to decipher where people's strengths lie, how a group or team rely on each other and what the rules of engagement are.

As well being part of the Different Duck team, Phoebe is an actor, voice over artist and comedian. She shared why Play is an important part of building psychological safety and how actors achieve this:

The ability to play is a chance to demonstrate that you’re open to getting things wrong or look silly in front of your team. These things sound really intimidating, but once you’re happy to drop your protective barriers through playing, you get used to ‘failing’, messing up and other inevitabilities in which we look to our team for support. Play builds resilience for when it counts and leads you to take yourself less seriously when it doesn't. It can even help teams or groups understand how to collectively take risks, be this at work or in every day life. Fundamentally, the ability to play helps you feel more comfortable and confident within your own skin, as well as around others”

Phoebe was also kind enough to share an improvisation exercise that she brings to the rehearsal process to help energise a group and build psychological safety:

"Seven Things" is an engaging game where players challenge each other to list seven items within an imaginative category. The game begins when anyone in the group prompts a player to name items in a specific category, such as "Seven kinds of cheese" or "Seven celebrities from Canada." The selected player then lists items one by one. As each item is named, the rest of the group joins in counting "one," "two," and so on, up to seven. When seven items have been named, everyone celebrates with a cheer (even if they go wrong or make items up). Then, it's the turn of the player who just answered to ask someone else to come up with seven things in another category.

Accuracy in listing is encouraged, but the main aim is for players to respond confidently, as if whatever they are saying is a real answer (even if it's nonsense!). This adds to the fun, especially towards the end of the list, where players might creatively invent items.

The reason that the team counts together is because this helps in keeping track and ensures that players don't exceed the seven-item mark.

While silly, this game provides the perfect opportunity to make mistakes, take risks and laugh with your team. While it’s not going to make your day’s to-do list any shorter, it will help your team explore and understand certains skills or dynamics that could prove essential in higher stakes situations.


Being vulnerable is uncomfortable, but intentional vulnerability is also an expression of trust, a message that communicates belief in your team and a mutual understanding that you'll be there for them in return, at their time of vulnerability.

Vulnerability enables actors to deliver those iconic moments we all know from our favourite films and shows. While we’re of course watching actors, we’re also watching real people respond authenticallly to what is happening infront of them (albeit in the fictional world of the performance).

Similarly, as a leader, building psychological safety is about having the vulnerability to acknowledge in front of your team that you are human and you make mistakes. This authenticity fosters a culture where team members feel safe to share their own concerns, ideas, and even admit their errors. Notice that this is the opposite of certain leadership qualities often associated (wrongly in our opinion) with leading a team, like unilateral authority, superior status, or unbending dominance.

The Takeaway for Leaders

Leaders can learn a valuable lesson from actors about displaying vulnerability. It's not a weakness but a strength that humanises leadership and fosters a culture of openness and trust within a team.

Here's how leaders can use vulnerability to build trust:

- Admitting Imperfections: Acknowledge your imperfections and mistakes openly. This cultivates an environment where team members feel safe to do the same, promoting transparency and continuous improvement.

- Sharing Personal Challenges: When appropriate, share personal challenges or setbacks you've faced. This demonstrates that everyone encounters obstacles, reinforcing the idea that vulnerability is a shared aspect of the human experience.

- Expressing Uncertainty: Leaders don't have to have all the answers. Expressing uncertainty and seeking input from the team fosters collaboration and makes individuals feel valued for their expertise.

- Encouraging Open Dialogue: Create a space for open dialogue where team members feel comfortable expressing concerns, ideas, and feedback without fear of judgment. This inclusivity enhances psychological safety.

- Leading with Empathy: Show empathy and understanding towards the challenges faced by your team. This genuine concern for their well-being establishes a connection that goes beyond a traditional hierarchy.

In essence, vulnerability is the cornerstone of authentic leadership. By embracing vulnerability, leaders can build a psychologically safe environment where team members thrive, collaborate, and contribute their best. It's a departure from the outdated notion of unquestioned authority, paving the way for a more compassionate and effective leadership approach.

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