Building Psychological Safety through Character Strength Stories
First coined in the 90s by professor William Kahn, psychological safety is described as the “condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo- all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way.”
Building psychological safety can help boost employees’ confidence about how they show up in front of their team, which also allows them to be more humble and less defensive when it comes to disagreements. When they feel comfortable being themselves, it sets more foundation for trust, which leads to better collaboration and innovation. They are more likely to voice their disagreements rather than holding on to resentments. They are also more likely to engage in healthy debates about new ideas.
Last time I wrote about the case of how storytelling played an integral role in humanizing Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and transforming it from the bottom of the rank to one of the world’s best. In this article, I will focus on how a particular type of story, character strength story, can be used to make our workplace more connected, inclusive, and therefore, more psychologically safe.
Although it is not uncommon for organizations to tell success stories of a job well done, these stories are conditional. They are only told when desirable behaviours are observed (e.g. R&D team’s tireless innovation), or when desirable results ensue (e.g. sales team exceeding your Q1 target). Conditional stories are generally not inclusive. The kindness and patience your front desk assistant showed to the influx of inquiries last week may not get mentioned in your team’s weekly sales touchpoint. The care your operations manager gave to onboard your new analyst virtually may be taken for granted as part of her job description.
To help everyone at work feel truly included, create a space for them to share stories revealing the strengths of their character, that is, attributes they display when they are “at their best”, e.g. being kind to a stranger, being perseverant during adversity. Sharing our character strengths defies our tendency to focus on the negative. Instead, it draws attention to aspects of us that are way more inspiring and attractive to others, because they are widely and morally valued.
Ironically yet unsurprisingly, what is best in our character is often what we are most uncomfortable talking about, or tend to be dismissive about. Tapping into that through storytelling is where the “magic” happens. Let’s look at a few examples.
The Master of Applied Positive Psychology program from the University of Pennsylvania has a 10-plus-year tradition of having new students introduce themselves to each other through character strength stories. Before Immersion Week in their first semester, each student is asked to write a one-page story of them at their best, which would be shared with their classmates when they meet.
On a warm late summer afternoon, surrounded by the lush greens and the neo-Gothic architecture on Penn’s Philadelphia campus, I was one of those students. Feeling trepidatious from coming across as boastful to the four strangers who would be my cohort mates that semester, I gave an account of me showing gratitude to my former employer during a massive layoff. As the rest of the group went on to share their tales of bravery (quitting their corporate career to start their own business), generosity (giving back to their college swim team), love, and spirituality, I sat in awe, Kleenex in hand to wipe away my occasional tears of inspiration. These four strangers would later become patient cohort mates tolerant of each other’s occasional crankiness from studying while holding a full-time job, keen listeners of our opposing opinions, and most importantly, my life-long friends. It was those simple stories that transported us into the most beautiful nooks of our psyche that bonded us. This bond formed a strong “emotional container” that allows us to approach our disagreements, our misunderstandings, and mistakes with positive regard, a foundation for building high-quality connections¹.
Applying character strength stories in a business school
Curious about how this same exercise would fly for students of a different discipline, and embolden by our school’s mandate to create a stronger student community in the midst of a pandemic, I decided to replicate this same exercise when our team at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business onboarded 110 MBA students virtually during their Opening Week. After a brief preamble, we put these students into breakout rooms of five. We asked them to take turns to share their three-minute character strength story followed by a two-minute share by the listeners on how the story resonated with them. To promote better listening, we asked the listeners to put all the character strengths they identified in each classmate’s story in a Google doc, after which we created and revealed live a word cloud showing their class’s collective strengths.
The result of the exercise was overwhelmingly positive. Close to a dozen students “raised their hands” on Zoom to share their experience.
“This exercise helped me create genuine connections with my classmates in a matter of 20 minutes. It was very impressive.”
“I thought as MBAs, we are to show ourselves as ‘perfect professionals’. To open and share our deepest feelings and insecurities, to show ourselves as humans, makes me realize that we are all in this together, that we are more similar than different.”
In the post-Opening Week survey, 97% of the respondents agreed (top two boxes) that this exercise connected them with their classmates more strongly. As for room for improvement, they asked for more time to connect and smaller groups (e.g. three) for more intimate and longer conversations.
Character strength stories are not confined to onboarding only. As we marked our one-year anniversary of working remotely, many of us have missed the “water cooler” conversations in which we used to connect and learn about our lives outside of work. In a recent staff meeting at our business school’s career centre, I hosted a character strength storytelling session where new and old staff from different teams got mixed together and broken into Zoom breakout rooms of three. Once again we were moved by the sides of our colleagues that we normally wouldn’t see in our professional interactions, leaving the staff meeting with a renewed sense of belonging to our workplace.
What if the positive results from these examples are just plain coincidence? What if these people just happened to like each other already, and the stories just catalyzed their connections? Possibly. But scientific research also provided some evidence supporting the “magic” stories can play in strengthening our bonds.
Uri Hasson, a Princeton neuroscientist, found that during storytelling, the listener’s brain responses become similar to the storyteller’s. Another neuroscientist, Paul Zak, found that when stories are told, our brain can release a significantly higher amount of oxytocin (47% according to one of his experiments), a neurochemical commonly known to be produced when mothers bond with their children². According to Zak’s research, oxytocin helps us trust each other and engenders reciprocity.
To use character strength stories to help your employees feel more included and psychologically safe, and to strengthen the relational fabric of your organization, consider the following questions:
- How do you create opportunities for stories like this to be told?
- How do you build on the insights, rapport, and good will from these storytelling sessions? How do you encourage employees to take risks by disagreeing more civilly, or to challenge the status quo, or to share more new ideas?
- How can you build a culture of paying attention to employees’ strengths as much as, if not more than, their areas for improvements? Consider HR practices such as recruitment, performance reviews, and organizational design.
- How can you design responsibilities or career development plans for employees so that they can tap into their strengths more?
The workplace can be a lonely and stifling place if we don’t feel included or cannot count on our colleagues to share our true selves and perspectives. These challenges that stand in the way of collaboration and innovation can be exacerbated by remote work, or when team members are still new to our organizations. To overcome these challenges and build organizations where employees feel that they belong, remember to tap into their best through storytelling, the very instrument that makes us human.
GET IN TOUCH
Please reach out to me if you’d like to discuss how a human-centered approach such as storytelling can be used to make your organization one where employees feel connected, motivated and inspired to serve your customers.
- Dutton, J.E. and Heaphy, E.D. The Power of High-Quality Connections, in Positive Organizational Scholarship, ed. Kim Cameron, Jane Dutton, and Robert Quinn (San Francisco, CA: Berrett- Koehler, 2003).
- Zak, P. J. (2015, January). Why inspiring stories make us react: The neuroscience of narrative. In Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science (Vol. 2015). Dana Foundation.