The Mind-Opening Wisdom of Office Improv

by Francesca Gino

Are you the dominant type? Take-charge, quick-to-judge, and top-down? Maybe it works for you. But here’s something to consider: Maybe you only think it does. Maybe the cost to your company is in all the ingenuity that employees haven’t dared to share.

Talent doesn’t thrive in an atmosphere of fear and aggression. Workers with sharp minds and potent ideas will keep quiet rather than risk rejection, depriving you and the organization the benefit of their creativity. Right up until the day they leave.

Lucky for you, there’s another way. I’ve studied different teams inside different organizations all over the world. The group that communicated most effectively—bringing out the best in both individual members and the unit—wasn’t gathered around a conference table, but inside an improv comedy theatre. You might think I’m joking. But don’t laugh; listen.

Paying careful attention to what others are saying — and not speaking until they are finished — is a core principle of improv. How else can you respond in the moment to your partner? The same goes for the person sitting on the other side of your desk: How else can you make them feel respected and valued? Another rule of improv is openness — you never know what your partner will say next, what reaction the moment might inspire, or where the scene is leading. Every idea is a potential turning point. Share your own. Argue for your own, even. But don’t insist on your own. Rebel against the need to always be right. Know when to follow.

And, finally, when you’re tempted to dismiss a team member’s idea, try to build on it instead. Or, following the lead of improv performers, see where “Yes, and…” takes you. That is, even when you’re skeptical of the direction an employee has suggested, accept the terms of the proposal and make an authentic effort to build on it. Whether on stage or at the office, an open atmosphere—an improv-like atmosphere—fosters confidence, spontaneity, and trust.

When he wasn’t creating visionary works of art, Michelangelo got off some pretty good lines.

Sculpture, the Italian Renaissance master said, is a process whereby the artist releases an ideal figure from a block of stone.

Insights from a sixteenth-century workshop might seem an awkward fit for a twenty-first-century workplace.

But not if you’re thinking like a rebel.

All of us possess ideal forms — our unique perspectives talents. The challenge is to sculpt our jobs and team-based projects to bring out the very best of our abilities.

Just as important, we must look for others who know how to do the same—or are open to learning. Improv comedy offers a few key lessons on how to best foster an environment that brings out the best in each of us.