Early Career

Funny Business: 3 Improv Techniques That Help You Succeed at Work

stock_handsI recently participated in a team building session with my manager and peers at an improv theater in Boston. As a big fan of comedy, I expected the experience to be fun. What I didn’t expect was to come out of the day with improv techniques to improve my capabilities as a team member and a manager.

Practice Deep Listening

How many times have you been a situation where you had to meet new people? Your hand is outreached, you say “nice to meet you” and two minutes later you’re horrified to realize that you cannot remember the person’s name. Why does this happen? An explanation of the first game we played may help.

The instructions seemed fairly simple. One person looks at another person and says a word out loud. The second person has to speak the first word that comes to mind when s/he hears the previous word. On and on we went until our facilitator paused the game. “Who remembers the first word?” he asked. Three of us raised our hand, which means roughly half of us did not remember.

Being the highly accomplished, and by many measures, successful team that we are, you can imagine we didn’t feel better when our facilitator told us this happens all the time. People rarely remember the first word.

Similar to our networking example, when we are so focused on what we are going to say or do in response to someone talking, we are not listening deeply enough to those with whom we are engaged. So the next time you meet someone, sit in a meeting, or really are in any situation that requires you to both listen and participate, be present and focus on the listening part. It’ll make you a much more effective participant.

No more “Yes, buts”

Have you ever pitched an idea to a colleague or even your manager only to hear, “That’s a great idea, but here are the reasons why it won’t work.” Been there? Me too… and as I reflect, I realize I have also been a “yes, but’er.”

The game we played involved one person making a statement. The next person then had to start their statement with, “yes, but.” It did not take long for us to realize that the scene was going nowhere. By negating each other’s statements, there was nowhere for the story to evolve. Had we been on stage, the only laughs might have been at us for how terrible we were at improv.

So what did we learn? When you feel compelled to tell someone all of the reasons why their idea won’t work, instead, try saying, “yes, and.” Imagine a colleague coming to you with an idea to implement a no-email Wednesday. You might be inclined to say, “yes, but that would never work because email is how we communicate; people sit in different geographic locations, and I need to document my responses.”

Instead, a “yes, and” response may open up new and bigger ideas. “Yes, and that would encourage people to get up from their desks and talk to each other, promoting a more personalized culture.” Practicing the yes and approach will help you be more open-minded, build on others’ ideas and make you come across as someone receptive to those around you.

You don’t have to be the center of attention to be a top performer

Picture you are an improv actor and you have just received a suggestion from the audience. Using your deep listening and word association skills, you’ve decided you will come on scene as a precocious seven year old boy. As you move toward a stack of chairs that you intend to knock over as part of your physical comedy act, your fellow actor says, “Hi, Grandpa!” You now have two choices. You can ignore the greeting and continue on with your idea which will initially likely still get a bunch of laughs or you can support your fellow actor and go along with her idea.

In business, this happens all of the time, right? You have an idea which may or may not be better than someone else’s. The extent to which you push your idea at the expense of someone else’s is up to you. If you combine the first two techniques discussed above, you might find yourself working toward an even better idea that individually you might not have thought of. (In case you were wondering, the first word was “baby.”)

At its root, improvisational theater draws heavily from collaboration and teamwork. As I reflect on my career, these capabilities are among the most important I’ve observed in successful leaders. So while improv may be in the business of creating funny, techniques in creating funny can also be the business of business.


Precillia-RedmondPrecillia Redmond is the senior director of corporate human resources and administration at Liberty Mutual Insurance. Precillia earned her MBA from the Olin School of Business at Babon College and specializes in human resources strategy. She already has her dream job and enjoys Forté events.

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