Creating a Safe Work
 Environment for Risk 

by Milo Shapiro    


You’re sitting in a meeting with co-workers or clients.  A creative idea crosses your mind that is very different from how things are commonly done.  This is something that would bend current thoughts and processes.  If you’re like most Americans, you’ll keep that idea to yourself and – if you’re really lucky – you’ll forget you ever had it!

Why?  Because time and again, our business cultures have not made it safe to express ideas that have unproven results.  Have you ever tried…and quickly faced statements like:

And so, brilliance is stifled – simply from fear of the reaction!  Nay-sayers seem to take pride in telling us why our ideas probably won’t work.  They fear, of course, that our ideas WILL be implemented and they may have to take the blame if any parts do fail.  And what a shame this is! 

After all, someone had to have voiced the idea that self-adhesive postage stamps would be nicer than licking glue, right?  And this was at a government agency -- imagine how many people must have quickly thought, “We can’t just do that!”  But eventually they did.  Know anyone who misses the old dry tongue approach?

Organizations cease to create brilliance if the people within them live in the safety zone.  How can we create an environment where everyone feels safe creating and even implementing ideas so we can grow and thrive? 

1)  Compliment ideas – don’t shoot them down in front of others.  If the idea really doesn’t appeal to you or is likely to take your meeting off target, ask the person to jot that down so it won’t be forgotten.  Then do talk to the individual later, even if it’s briefly.

2)  Praise an individual for his/her work - out of the context of other business.  Make a special point of stopping by just for this – both when the recipient is alone and around peers.  Not everyone is motivated by praise, but some crave it.  And there's certainly no down side to praising those who don't long for it!

3)  Encourage the reporting of struggles.  When teammates are afraid to talk about the places they are stuck, they cannot be helped.  What’s more, just taking the frustration out of feeling alone can release that mental block.

4)  Discuss communication obstacles.  Without blame, talk about what happened, why, and how we can encourage different behavior in the future.  End on a positive note by thanking the participants for sharing the experience.

5)  Among the risk-taking ideas, do as many of the little ones as possible.  Show that you’re willing to take chances freely where the impact is low. 

Years ago, I offered to start a “Bagel Club” at one of my jobs.  My plan was to allow people to tell me on Wednesday afternoons what flavor bagel they’d like Thursday morning.  The manager could have easily found a reason not to support me, but instead, he said “Sign me up for a Cinnamon-Raisin this week and we’ll see how it goes.”

From then on, Thursdays always started with about fifteen of us converging briefly for the bagels I'd pick up.  Thursday mornings were always more upbeat after that, even though it was just a moment to say hello over the cream cheese.

6)  When ideas fail, celebrate the spirit of attempt while acknowledging where the attempt did not succeed.  Encourage discussion of alternative approaches rather than dumping the program. 

One flaw in the Bagel Club was the distraction of people dropping by all afternoon.  The manager noticed this and approached me.  Rather than dismissing the club, he asked me if I could find a solution to that one problem.  The next Tuesday, I posted a staff list by the coffee machine.  That gave everyone two days to put a bagel flavor next to their name and no one had to come by my desk at all.

7)  Celebrate successes publicly.   This needn’t be a big bonus.  One manager I knew used candy names at a staff meeting as acknowledgements, rewarding each members of successful project trio with a Three Musketeers.

8)  Encourage cross-team praise, not just from above.  This can be trickier to accomplish, but side comments like, “Thanks for praising Nancy on that job.  It’s nice to see my staff supporting each other,” can set a tone.

Once the space is opened for brilliance, watch it come to life…and see if you don’t end up looking good, too!


(word count for editors: 780.  The stories at points 5 and 6 can be removed if length is an issue.)


Full byline:

After 15 years of Information Technology, Milo Shapiro risked colossal failure to focus full-time on applying improvisation to businesses, conferences, and schools.  Through “IMPROVentures”, he offers TEAMprovising – teambuilding and communication exercises based in lessons of improvisation.  He also works in a duo and solo as a motivational and entertainment speaker for conferences.  His books "The Worst Days Make The BEST Stories" and "Public Speaking: Get A's, Not Zzzzzz's" and more info on him are at

Abridged byline, if the one above is beyond limitations:

Milo Shapiro applies improvisation to conferences and retreats, using improv fun for teambuilding & communication among staff.  He is an interactive motivational speaker and has a keynote about public speaking. His books are "Public Speaking: Get A's, Not Zzzzzz's" and "The Worst Days Make The BEST Stories".


Super-abridged byline, if the one above is still beyond limitations:

Milo Shapiro applies improvisation to keynote speeches, conferences and retreats for team building.  His motivational speeches and his keynotes/coaching on public speaking are at