For some people (or, I’d argue, most), the idea of jumping onstage to perform improv is as joyful as a cold-sweat nightmare.
But when you think about it, isn’t improv what we do at work?
We’re constantly collaborating with colleagues, executing ideas, and adjusting to complications on the fly.
We’re building something out of nothing every day. That’s improv.
So, then, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the technique itself. At a recent drop-in improv class at WeWork Now in New York City, Katie Hutch, a teacher at nearby improv theater and comedy school The PIT, connected the dots from comedy to common workplace issues. I walked away feeling looser and lighter, but also armed with skills to take back to work. Here’s what I learned about being a better listener, making people feel included, and how to value any idea, no matter where it comes from.
Build a “yes-obsessed” team. In improv, the first guideline is to maintain a “yes, and…” environment. The “yes” means accepting what the other person says and does, while “and” entails build on their reality and taking it to the next level.
This mind-set easily translates to any group project. Instead of coming from a place of “no, we can’t do that,” what if you said “yes” to every suggestion? You might end up with a far different outcome—and that’s a good thing. Coming from a place of “yes” also builds a project together as a team, instead of relying on a prescribed definition of what you think it should look like. This develops a sense of teamwork, not competition.
Exile the awkward. Workplaces are full of daily micro-interactions, whether that’s making small talk with the CFO at the coffee machine or accidentally slamming the bathroom door on Katie from strategy. These don’t have to be onerous; you can steal the improv technique of “mirroring” by observing the energy the person is exuding and sending it right back to them. Don’t mimic their exact tone or movements, of course, unless you want some side-eye, but brief eye contact give you a sense of their mood. This can help you feel connected and present while also putting them at ease.
Own your goof-ups. There’s no looking backward when performing improv. Whatever happens, happens—and you roll with it. Think about your day job: If you make a mistake in a meeting, say, by fumbling a presentation, it’s more confident to own it than pretend nothing happened. If you point out your mistakes, this gives people around you permission to laugh.
The same truth holds if you miss a deadline for a project. Don’t duck it. Take ownership. If you can reveal your humanness, you’ll connect better with your coworker or boss. There’s power to mine from your mistakes, and then you take the next logical step: “Yyes, and…” the situation and offer up how you’re going to improve in the future.
Stop trying to calm everyone down. Imagine that your boss rolls in late and in a terrible mood. Her commute was strenuous, the dry cleaner lost her favorite shirt, and she forgot her morning smoothie. Now she’s taking out all that manic energy on her job—and maybe you. What do you do?
If you try to mitigate her panic with an “everything’s cool” attitude, that is denying her energy. Instead, the improv-infused reaction would be to observe and acknowledge her reality—“wow, seems like a crazy morning”—and catch up to her pace. Rather than shutting down the energy she’s bringing in to the workplace, try to jump in and get on the same page.
Projecting is a shortcut to disaster. Ever viciously stewed over an office slight or seemingly terse email… that turned out to be 100 percent innocuous? Blame projection—you were projecting what you thought someone did, instead of observing what was actually happening.
In improv, the moment is moving too fast and you can’t predict what your partner will do. You can only react to the reality of what’s happening.
So what happens if you reread that snippy email? What does it actually say? Figure out the reality—and then respond.
Trust your partners. During one exercise, the improv-ers moved into a circle and were told to “pass a clap around” by clapping at the exact same time as the person you were passing to. We quickly learned that you could do this only by holding eye contact with your partner; you had to nonverbally communicate what you were doing.
We often pass off projects to people at work, so think about how important it is to have a similar check-in before signing off and taking a vacation. Rather than dumping an assignment in someone else’s lap, provide a quick progress report so everyone can be on the same page.
Give up trying to be the office clown. The funniest person in your office usually isn’t the guy who barrels into every meeting with a prewritten “joke.” Instead, it’s probably the quiet listener who observes, then amps up the tone of any conversation. In other words, stay tuned in, read the room, and stop trying to be funny—and the funny will find you.