In her book ‘How to have a great day at work’ Caroline Webb suggests that a technique of improvisational comedy is a good way to give brain friendly feedback. ‘Yes, and….’ instead of ‘Yes, but…’ fosters collaboration and helps bring out the best in others.
Ever since I read this, I’ve been intrigued to learn more about improv. Facebook must have known this, because they kept telling me about a local course, starting soon. I signed up.
I mean, I love my books but some things you can’t learn from a book, you’ve got to get out in the real world, meet real new people and do new things. I thought this would be fun. A little bit out of my comfort zone – I once did a short stand up comedy course, ending with a showcase performance. That was a bit scary, but I rehearsed and knew my routine. Improv – well, that’s a whole different ball game, but I thought it would be fun, so what the hell?
It is not what I expected. I don’t know what I expected, but this wasn’t it. On our second meeting, we were asked to stare into someone’s eyes for two minutes and imagine their life. I knew next to nothing about these people. One guy (they are mostly guys, only one other woman, although the trainer is a young woman) the only thing I know about him is that he’d just been accepted onto a wimp to warrior MMA training programme. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds serious. Another guy, the only thing I knew about him is that he’s autistic and didn’t like the light in the room we were in. And the third guy, I know his name, but that’s about it. But then I eased into it a bit and started making stuff up. Which I think is what we were meant to do.
We also created a soundscape. For those of you who don’t know what that is – and again, I didn’t – it involves sitting in an outward facing circle, in the dark, with our eyes closed, making noises. Mostly copying other people’s noises, but occasionally dropping in a new one. Now, ask me to stand up in front of an audience to speak and I’m good to go. But you want me to sit in the dark, with my eyes closed, amongst strangers, and make funny noises? Seriously? Do I have to?
We also learned the ‘Yes, and…’ technique. Whatever someone said, you had to accept it and build on it. I got involved in drug smuggling in Colombia and found I had an alcohol problem on holiday in the Caribbean. I think there were drugs there too. (We’re new, not sure we had the right idea.)
You might be wondering why I’m telling you all this. Well, even though I’d started out with the knowledge that improv could foster collaboration at work and bring out the best in others I was nevertheless surprised at the life lessons in the first two classes. Here’s a few of the things I learned.
You don’t leave it to someone else, be proactive, participate and remember it’s always your turn. How useful is this at work? Ever work in one of those places (public sector is good at this) where people take the attitude ‘I’m not doing that, it’s not my job’? How much better would it be if everyone had everyone’s back, and just jumped in and did what’s necessary?
They may come out with something completely random or out of character – I mean, do you think I’d actually get involved in drug smuggling? But it’s been said, so work with it, and make the other person look good.
Imagine if everyone at your workplace used this principle, that they always had to make everyone else look good? There wouldn’t be problems of people taking credit for others’ ideas, because everyone would be focusing on making their managers, their team members and their colleagues look good. The level of collaboration would sky rocket, and so would productivity.
I discovered I have a problem letting things go. I’ve never considered myself a control freak. I’m usually the one suggesting other people let it go. Driving for example, and some idiot cuts in front, others get all worked up, honking and swearing at the other driver. I’m the one saying you’re only winding yourself up, let it go.
But when we start to take turns adding bits to a story, I was really frustrated if someone didn’t say what I thought they should. I did not like giving up the control to others or letting go of the outcome.
Autonomy at work is a key driver of motivation, so if you’re a manager finding it difficult to give up control, you’re stifling your team. Like me, you’re going to have to learn to let it go.
I found the exercises helped to develop empathy. Even though I was making it up, I felt empathy for the people whose eyes I sat staring into. And it also made me want to know more about them. It was good to develop some curiosity about someone else, especially if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t naturally consider things from someone else’s perspective. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes at work would get rid of much conflict.
It was a difficult exercise to do, I totally get that this is a bit full on for work, and not everyone would be comfortable throwing themselves into this. But (ah damn, I said ‘but’!) if you can at least stop and consider someone else’s position before reacting, then working relationships will be smoother.
Are you a good listener? An active listener? Too often, we’re not fully listening to what someone else is saying, we’re waiting for our turn to speak.
Feeling heard is a powerful motivator. Disempowered people often feel that their concerns aren’t being heard, and at work this can lead to resentment, which in turn leads to low motivation, and then low productivity. Even just on a practical level, if you’re not listening to problems that others at work are experiencing, you’re also shutting off possible solutions
I’m not suggesting all workplaces introduce courses in improvisational comedy – though that could be fun – but it doesn’t hurt to borrow techniques that can improve your day at work.
What do you think? Is there a particular behaviour you could improve to make things better at work?
Lindsay is the owner of Silvern Training. Before that she had a very varied working life, doing everything from admin, volunteering, sales, teaching, training, fundraising, management and chairing a board of charity trustees. Now wants to change the world of work by improving workplace cultures so that people can look forward to Monday mornings. Also likes to support individuals to speak up, be better listeners and to take action.