strategy+business: Corporate Strategies and News Articles on Global Business, Management, Competition and Marketing
 / Autumn 2018 / Issue 92

Using Improv to Transform How You Lead

Elizabeth Doty

Elizabeth Doty is a former lab fellow of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and founder of Leadership Momentum, a consultancy that focuses on the practical challenges of keeping organizational commitments.

 

A version of this article appeared in the Autumn 2018 issue of strategy+business.

Leaders who listen and engage in open dialogue with their employees gain enormous advantages. Yet, in practice, leaders sometimes hesitate to invite such dialogue, because they fear their employees’ opinions will be off-base. Rather than face a confrontation, these managers sidestep important conversations altogether.

Avoiding difficult conversations may seem easier in the short term. But over the long haul, leaders cannot achieve alignment, empowerment, or accountability without actively engaging their employees. What leaders need, then, is a way to be open and accepting, even if they ultimately disagree and decide to go in a different direction. This is where one of the key tenets of improvisational comedy can help: “yes, and.” Yes means agreeing with your partner’s premise, whatever it is; and means building on what he or she has offered. For example, if your improv partner raises her hand to her ear, pantomiming a phone, and says, “Customer service, may I help you?” you respond as a customer disputing a credit card. If your partner winds up for a pitch, you swing for the bleachers.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, leading companies and management programs have begun using improv to teach creativity and collaboration. The results are compelling: Using improv can energize teams, surface breakthrough ideas, and enable learning from failure. But improv is more than just a way to co-create with colleagues; it can help leaders rethink how they manage and communicate in every interaction. For example, improvisers learn to listen to their partners and embrace failure, rather than advancing their own agenda. This sounds simple enough, but in practice, most people default to “yes, but.” They reject, contradict, or ignore their partner’s offer. For example, a novice improviser might see her partner pantomime holding a phone and, instead of picking up the customer service theme, say something like: “You still have that itch on your ear? I told you to see the doctor!” The gag may get a laugh, but it has killed the scene in the process.

Leaders also tend to default to “yes, but” communications. They may try to sound supportive when employees offer suggestions or comments. They may even say the words “yes” or “I agree.” But then they move on too quickly to “but” — explaining why a proposal isn’t feasible, offering their own ideas, or reassuring employees that their concerns are unfounded. Sometimes this is because they don’t want to get stuck agreeing with subpar ideas or dealing with tangents. Other times, they worry that allowing too many questions or concerns will create a downward spiral of negativity and low morale.

The fact is, to truly communicate, we need to connect. We need to let go of our message and actually engage with what others are offering. This is where “yes, and” becomes a philosophy, not just a tactic. As Kat Koppett, who leads improv-based training programs for multinational companies and has authored a book on business improv called Training to Imagine, explains, “‘Yes, and’ is a fundamental orientation toward noticing and accepting what is here in this situation, and building from there.” By adopting this stance, leaders can open up frank conversations without compromising quality or outcomes, even on touchy subjects. The key, Koppett advises, is to separate the distinct steps of an interaction.

Step 1: Expand your awareness. “My first obligation is to notice as many offers as I can,” explains Koppett. “This means having the presence of mind to fully listen — not just to the content of what is being said, but to the emotions, values, and deeper interests involved.” By “offer,” improvisers mean anything our partners are communicating, verbally or nonverbally. Imagine you walk into a meeting where a team is planning a product launch. How much do you notice? Do you take in the flip charts on the wall? Get a read on the energy level? Are they stuck or on the brink of a new idea? Leading effectively in that moment requires your full awareness and undivided attention. Yet many employees struggle to get on their leaders’ radar. Start by putting a higher priority on just being available. Ask yourself, “What can I notice here?”

Step 2: Say “yes” to what is offered. The next step is to accept what others are communicating. “‘Yes’ does not mean agreeing,” explains Koppett. “It means accepting what exists without attempting to dismiss, avoid, or invalidate it. This requires an internal shift [for the individual leader], to manage [his or her own] resistances, ego, or worries.” It is easy to unknowingly reject, ignore, or override others’ offers, because you have your own agenda or do not want to deal with the complexity of something new. Returning to the product launch meeting above, what if you walked in and said, “You’re making this too complicated. Here’s how I would approach it.” Even if you then go on to ask the team’s opinion, you have already blocked real engagement by failing at the outset to show an interest in the team’s way of thinking about the problem. Instead, ask yourself, “What can I accept here?” Let go of your agenda for a moment and allow others to influence your thinking. Before you move on, paraphrase what you are hearing, until your team members are satisfied that you get it.

Leaders need a way to be open and accepting, even if they ultimately disagree with their employees. This is where improvisational comedy can help.

Step 3: Add to what is emerging. Finally, it is your turn to add to the picture. Ask yourself: “How can I build on these ideas or perspectives?” You might add some details to the plan or ask a question to draw out more of their vision, in a way that clearly connects to their thinking. The goal is not to debate competing ideas but to create something new together — what improvisers call “serving the scene.” Koppett emphasizes that you can do this even while disagreeing. For example, you might say, “I like the basic idea, and I think we could make the plan simpler. What if we just used steps three and four?” Through this give and take, you and your team are developing a broader view of your options. This allows you to choose a more effective course of action or decide where they need more data to reconcile their views.

Living “yes, and” as a leadership philosophy requires courage. It challenges you to engage your employees and find out what they think, and then build from there. But when you approach every conversation as an opportunity to improvise, you and your team are more likely to reach the holy grail of communication: shared meaning that translates into intelligent action on the ground.

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Using Improv to Transform How You Lead