One of my biggest passions is improvisation—yes, the acting kind. While miming spur-of-the-moment scenarios in front of a live audience might sound uncomfortable, if you really think about it, we’re forced to improvise every day.
In fact, improv acting uses the same components that lead to meaningful interactions in the workplace.
I first discovered improv in the ’90s, when I studied with Chicago’s Second City Theater comedy troupe. Today, I attribute my success to improv, and join leaders from the likes of Google, PepsiCo, MetLife, McKinsey & Co., and others in touting improv acting as a workplace tool.
This doesn’t mean every company needs to invest in mandatory improv classes for the next team development event. But here are four simple ways I’ve identified to help you incorporate some of the most valuable rules of improv into your workplace.
Many of us have heard this one before. Imagine one improv actor joins another on stage and says, “Don’t worry, I’m with the FBI!” and his co-performer responds, “No you’re not. You’re a dentist,” and throws off the scene. The scene has nowhere to go.
In improv, we accept the reality created by our fellow actors. The same should hold true with interactions in the workplace, where denying a coworker’s reality or perspective is neither collaborative nor productive.
Instead, accept what someone says, and build on it. Try to acknowledge your colleagues’ personal truths, even if you disagree with them.
Consider the following exchange between two co-workers Jack and Anna:
Jack: “I think training would be most effective if conducted in three stages.”
Anna: “That’s an interesting idea. It wouldn’t take as much time away from other work.”
Jack: “It would give people time to practice their skills.”
Anna: “Yes, and that would lead to better learning and retention.”
During this exchange, Anna acknowledges and respects Jack’s idea, even if she doesn’t necessarily agree with it. She offers observations about his idea, and in doing so, keeps the conversation going.
In improv speak, when someone ignores or refuses to engage in a fellow player’s action, this is called blocking.
Think about the last time someone introduced a new idea in a meeting. Chances are, a colleague had a quick response as to why it wouldn’t work. This is what makes many employees hesitant to innovative in the first place.
Next time this happens in a meeting, resist the urge to block the new idea. Recognize it, and show your support by building on what your colleague just shared. If you’re not sold, ask for more information and challenge them to create a more detailed plan of how it might work.
Improv can go down a dull, disastrous path when players focus on one-upping each other instead of building lively, interactive character relationships.
In the workplace, just like on the improv stage, relationships should support the exchange of ideas, not just cater to one star. Don’t put all your energy into being the smartest person in the room. Instead, focus on connecting with colleagues and clients.
The more we strive to get to know one another, the better our collaborations will be. A client or boss who knows you’re dealing with a difficult family situation, for example, will be more empathetic if you’re late for work one day.
Recently one boss told me that in the past, his employees often felt he piled work on them without reason or compassion. After establishing better relationships, his direct reports began to see the work he gave them as a vote of confidence. By intentionally getting to know his direct reports better, he learned how to challenge them in new and motivating ways. In other words, he communicated that he trusted his team to do bigger, better things.
In improv, you’re constantly feeding off the actions of your cast members to build a compelling scenario. Everyone’s lines, gestures and energy are important in creating a believable scene, and it can unfold and take shape line by line.
When someone else is sharing at a work meeting, don’t get stuck focusing on that highly important, super-smart thing you want to say—i.e. your lines and your lines only. Instead, listen and respond to the information being shared. Your original, super-smart idea might even change shape by the time you’ve found the right opportunity to speak.
Being present is crucial in a business setting, whether you’re management or an entry-level hire. It alleviates something we’re all guilty of: thinking about what our next move will be, instead of truly listening to the person in front of us.
By actively listening, I can get directly to the heart of what my colleagues are trying to convey. Additionally, I’m able to ask questions that help me glean information I likely wouldn’t have received otherwise.
In the age of authenticity, it’s all about interacting genuinely in the workplace—yes, even though we’re talking about acting here.
So, the next time you find yourself front and center stage in the workplace, consider improv acting as a tool to tap into your most authentic self. From there, you can build on ideas, forge meaningful relationships and collaborate in real-time to be the best version of yourself you can be.