Improv Techniques Beneficial in Leadership

A colleague and I recently sat down to watch a webinar together. The topic was interesting. The content was informative. The two speakers were esteemed in their professions. And the delivery between the co-leaders was well done. That is until it wasn’t ….

With a sharp and curt vocal tone, we heard one of them interrupt the other and chirp, “I take exception to what you are saying and must jump in here.” In that instant, the webinar lost something. An uncomfortable pause filled the space. The respectful exchange between the co-leaders hit a bump. In a short minute, the momentum that had been building during the program began to evaporate.

My colleague and I turned toward each other. One of us muttered, “that was bad” as the other nodded in agreement. Both of us had recently completed a leadership development program that incorporated improvisation (improv) in its curriculum. Thus, we recognized how helpful improv guidelines could have been for those co-leaders.

Improv? you might ask. Yes, improv is associated with comedy, but its methods have a place in leadership. Setting up for success in improv is much like setting up for success in business.

At the core of improv is acting and reacting with spontaneity. To do that well, a performer must be present and aware of all that is going on around him. The same holds true for leaders. They must be present and aware.

According to Kip Kelly at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, improv requires the ability to listen and be aware of others. It entails clarity in communication and confidence to proceed unscripted according to a few basic guidelines. In the case of this webinar and in most workplaces, leaders must be agile in order to respond to the unexpected and facilitate a community among participants.

Let’s look at three basic improv guidelines and how they help build cohesion and agility among teammates.

  1. The first rule is to ensure your teammates remain credible.

Cutting a person off to challenge the “facts” is rarely an engaging tactic. Rather it can throw up a block and bring things to a halt.

It is human nature to want to look good. But when done at the expense of others, it can be unproductive. In teamwork, credibility is not about one versus the others. Rather it is the system as a whole that matters.

  1. The second rule is to say “yes, and ….”

The importance here is that one does not have to agree with or even like what was said. “Yes, and” is simply language that demonstrates respect and paves the way for brainstorming, collaboration and problem solving. Those two words act as a builder from which another point of view can flow without discrediting others.

The “yes” simply acknowledges the point that was made by others. It also indicates openness to another perspective. The “and” then gives the opportunity to make a point or clarify what was said: “Yes and another way to think about it is …..”

  1. The third rule is there are no mistakes, only opportunities.

Saying “I must take exception to what you are saying” is clearly throwing your teammate under the bus. That short sentence sheds light on incompetence and notes a mistake. Moreover, it might be what shuts down others and takes away what there was to build upon.

In improv, there is a responsibility to look for opportunities. That means trusting teammates and embracing what is going on in the moment. Engaging with the skill of real-time adapting as new information and situations emerge is critical. It will help to capitalize on the opportunity to say or create something new and then move on.