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Shoot for the moon! But you choose: the dark or the bright side

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Shoot for the moon! But you choose: the dark or the bright side

Last summer I participated in a module on positive psychology, which took place in Paris as part of my Master in Coaching & Consulting for Change. Besides the class teaching, by Prof. Ilona Boniwell, we were put into an escape room experiment, designed as a space ship, to see if we could apply what we had learned in class. 

Before we started the experiment, we had to form teams, who would be competing. Somehow, I did not receive the note (or didn’t pay attention), but within minutes the alpha males & females of our cohort formed a team as if this was a game of life & death, while the rest was drinking coffee. As a consequence the group I was part of, was formed as a result of not being part of Team Alpha, and continue to enjoy our coffee.

And so we entered the escape space shuttle being told by Team Alpha that we were going to loose and would crash the shuttle – all intended as friendly teasing obviously. The shuttle was dark, lit by 100’s of lights, with proper space shuttle seats, giant screens, radars, boxes and switches all over. We found the instructions and looked at each other: now, how are we going to do this?

What I learned that day, changed my mindset how I approach everyday life but also how I approach work (yes – this is a cheap teaser)…

let the game begin!

Obviously, taking up the roles in the team was the first thing that was on our team’s mind, and in particular the leadership role. I was given the role of the team leader – which I perceive more positive than taking the leadership role – and was asked how we should proceed. Meanwhile ‘the Launch Control Center’ – aka our Professors – was putting pressure on us, telling us to make the shuttle ready for take-off.

In my given leadership role, I felt responsible for the well-being of my team, more than for us beating the other team. I am actually quite competitive and like winning, but I felt that we could rather have fun and just experience whatever would come at us. In the end, the experiment was going to be manipulated by professors anyway – being a few modules down the Master program, we got to know how the game works.

Our team members took their role and seat, based on what they would like to do, and we started flipping some switches, looking at maps, figuring out what we should do anyway, solving puzzles, playing with the radar, and dealing with frequent interruptions coming from the Launch Control Center.

what did the manual say again?

During our class teachings, we were presented with an exercise. In short: we were asked to take a decision whether to let an F1 car race or not, given the fact that there was a possibility that some parts of the car could malfunction under certain temperatures. We received the case study material, including temperature data. None of the cohort members would cancel the race; why sacrifice a win for a small chance of the car getting damaged due to a malfunctioning O-ring?

Except one fellow student who holds a PhD in Mathematics – based on the data, he argued that there was 100% probability that the parts would malfunction and that the costs associated with a crash would drive the F1 Team into bankruptcy.

He was right. And so were the engineers working on the launch of the Challenger Space Shuttle on the 28th of January, 1986. Our exercise was based on the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster, in which astronauts died, as an indirect result of engineers not feeling the psychological safety to speak up to the management, when they realised that the Challenger would crash 100%, due to the O-rings malfunctioning under exceptionally low temperatures.

I was so intrigued by this example and the role of psychological safety, that I decided to write an essay and eventually my Master Thesis on this topic. I instantly realised that the existence or the absence of psychological safety was the key ingredient of all the bad and good leadership situations I had experienced in my career.

The puzzle pieces came together.

let’s play by the new rules

The puzzles pieces came together in class and in the subsequent teachings we were made aware of the positive relationship between psychological safety and team performance.

In our own space shuttle – without actually discussing this, I think we collectively realised that keeping the climate psychological safe, but also adding the fun-factor to the experiment, would be a wise thing to do. Let’s give it a try, we are the underdog anyway!

We cooperated successfully, had a lot of fun pretending that we were Han Solo and Chewbacca, did not blame each other when we did not manage to complete the rigged instructions coming from the Launch Control Center with their cameras and microphones spying on us. We laughed, we trusted each other, and there was room for creativity in finding solutions. When we succeeded in solving a puzzle on the way to landing our shuttle, we celebrated.

a PARALLEL universe

However, both we and Team Alpha failed in landing our respective shuttles. Obviously, the experiment was setup like this as we were being tested. Our team was slightly disappointed that we failed, but expressed our appreciation for having such a great and pleasant time together. Team Alpha was not so happy; collectively or individually, they complained about too many captains on the ship, rivalry, in-and out group behaviour, a little bit of mutiny and blaming, and an overall feeling of failure.

During the rest of the day we were further involved in positive psychology exercises. How to distinguish through a whole range of emotions, how to achieve transformation objectives along a path of milestones to solve, and so on.

One could feel that the escape room experiment in the morning, was still in the minds of everyone. However, not in the same way. It felt like there was a division between our team reiterating the good time we had and making Chewbacca sounds, and Team Alpha being disappointed and slightly annoyed with their overall team experience.

At the end of the day, we were asked to share our feedback. When I went through my thoughts and experiences, I realised that my day was great, that I had a wonderful and partially unexpectedly fulfilling day. But… that it could have been the opposite if I would have been part of the other team and had a different state of mind at the beginning of our task.


Perhaps it is a given for some, but for me it wasn’t: if you want to win, it does not mean that there is no place for the good vibes. As a matter of fact, it could even improve team performance, just as psychological safety does.

The escape room experience has proven to me that even when you are locked up in a situation you can’t get out of, you should not let the dark side take over.