The Benefits of Improv for Leaders

Benefits of Improv for leaders
Photo by Ahmad Odeh / Unsplash

Think of the great leaders you’ve had in your life. What characteristics did they share? I’d guess they were all great communicators. Maybe they were creative or thought outside the box.

Were they adaptable?

They likely worked to make others, especially those they lead, look good.

Now, contrast that with the worst leaders you’ve encountered. Most likely, they were the exact opposite characteristically - selfish, authoritative, closed-minded, rigid, and I’d bet most of their communication had a downward flow.

The point of this article is not to pick on bad leaders. It’s not always their fault. Many individuals have positional leadership thrust upon them because they are good at what they do.

Organizations, in a futile attempt to reward good work, promote an employee who has no business leading others. Others might be a business owner, a brilliant visionary who started a company from nothing and now finds themselves as the person their people look to for guidance. Others still, could be looked to by others because they have expertise or even seniority in a particular department.

It is important to note that regardless of which definition of leader used, ANYONE can be (and in fact, is) a leader. Management and leadership are completely different things. Managers are leaders because of positional power but not all, not even most, leaders are not managers.

Experiential Learning

The good news is that leadership is a skill that can be learned and honed. While there are many ways to do so, one of the best (and most fun) ways to enhance leadership and other business skills is through improvisation (improv) classes. Let’s look at five ways improv can help you develop leadership skills.

Improvisation does not refer to improv comedy, though the context in which we're discussing here does refer to improvisational comedy. I like this definition from Merriam-Webster - “to make or to fabricate from what is conveniently on hand.” Another way to think of it is to make impromptu decisions within specific boundaries. Improvisation is about presence, listening, and decision-making.

5 Ways Improv Can Build Better Leaders

Can help a leader more comfortable giving up control

As much as we want to feel in control as human beings, we’re just not. Regardless of your situation, position, authority, or anything else. We make plans and those plans change.

One of the most important tenets of improv is the idea of “yes and,” that is accepting what is and adding to it or responding to it. In improv, this is how we get to delightfully funny situations but it’s also how we find ourselves in deeply moving ones too.

The brilliance of improvisational theater is that it’s a collective creation. You could likely not find yourselves in those same situations without throwing out an idea and letting your partner add to it.

We have different ideas, we have different knowledge, we have different experiences, and these color our responses to everything around us.

When I throw out an idea to my partner on stage and they respond in a way my experience would have never allowed for, then my own experience gets to guide my response to a situation I would have never found myself in. Collective problem solving.

It’s no different in leadership situations, whether in organizations, schools, sports, or some other project.

If a leader tries to exert control (which isn’t leadership anyway) they are shutting down the collective creativity of their entire team and ultimately damaging the results. Many times, leaders simply have a difficult time giving up control (as if they have any).

Improv forces you to give up control.

You have to rely on your partner to take what you give them and they respond in kind. Improv by yourself is just talking but giving something to your partner and allowing them to add to it or change it, that is improv and it will completely change the way you think about your original idea. There is no better way to illustrate how great lack of control can be for trust, creativity, and fun than improv.

It shows the value of trust

When I’m onstage doing improv I have to trust my scene partner. I have to know that they’ve got my back just like I’ve got theirs.

There aren’t many places lonelier than being on stage when you’ve been presented with an idea or reality that you don’t understand and have no response to. There must be mutual trust between scene partners.

Trust that there aren’t any “gotcha” moments.

Trust that your scene partner is there to set you up to look good just as you are for them. In a performance, if one person bombs then everyone looks bad.

This is no different in the business world. When we can’t trust our coworkers, relationships devolve quickly into combative, resentful situations where we protect ourselves against looking like an idiot.

So many times, this turns into letting others look bad, or even trying to MAKE others look bad. When the negative attention isn’t on us personally we feel somehow safer but in reality if the team is missing the mark then we all are.

Quite often, this sort of office culture begins with leadership. Leaders are examples, they pave the path. Improv teaches immense lessons about psychological safety (which is an important factor in affecting change) that can translate to business.

When we feel safe, when we trust others, we operate with a freedom that allows us to do our best work because we know that when we make a mistake our teammates are there to pick us up, not tear us down.

Become a more effective communicator

When folks think about the potential benefits of improv, communication skills are usually high on the list. However, most people mention improv as a means to becoming better at public speaking, storytelling, or something similar.

While it’s true, improvisation can definitely help an individual increase public speaking skills, the biggest benefit improv has on communication is related to listening.

Think about it.

How do you respond quickly and in a way that makes sense if you don’t hear what is being said to you? You must listen intently to stay engaged and to support your partner.

Now, how many times have you had a conversation with a colleague while you were thinking about ten other things? How many times have you failed to give them your full attention while working on a problem?

Be honest.

Now, how many times has poor listening lead to poor decisions, work that had to be redone, or even failure to accomplish a goal? Now, think about how your team member feeling unheard can destroy morale, motivation, and eventually job satisfaction.

Humans by nature like to talk. We enjoy being heard and expressing ourselves. A position of leadership can easily be a platform to exert our own ideas on others, to feel in control and important. But in doing so, it is all too common that we alienate our team and push them out the door to another job where they feel heard and appreciated. Simply listening can go a long way.

Enhanced decision-making

Studies show that practicing improvisation leads to a significant improvement in mindfulness. Since you can’t really improvise effectively if you’re not present in the moment, this makes a lot of sense.

In an ever-connected world, our attention spans get shorter each year.

If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.

We rarely have to wait for anything anymore. At the click of the button you can find information on anything you need to know, have food delivered to your door in twenty minutes, and depending on where you live, Amazon will even deliver things to you same-day.

But that’s the problem. We don’t have to think about it.

This ability to have what we want when we want it makes us completely unaware of most of the spontaneous decisions we’re making on a regular basis.

In her doctoral dissertation titled “Effects of Improvisation Techniques in Leadership Development,” Dr. Farnaz Tabaee found from putting leaders through an improvisational leadership workshop, that 79% of executive and educational leader’s decisions were made spontaneously at work. More than that, they weren’t even aware that they were making these decisions.

Practicing improvisation enhances awareness in the form of mindfulness, being purposeful in your attention to awareness in the moment. Not only that but accepting openly and without judgment. Increased mindfulness leads to better awareness of the decisions we’re making and increases the confidence with which we make them.

Increased creativity and innovation

This isn’t just true for the leader, but for those they are leading as well. Perhaps it’s even more important for those being led.

Besides the sort of obvious benefits to creativity such as confidence in sharing ideas without judgment, tapping into unconventional thought, and creative repetitions, saying “yes and...” without denying others and listening intently to understand an idea can be a game-changer.  

I touched on this a bit earlier - by yes anding ideas and input from your people you are opening yourself up to collective creativity. Not only will you and your team find yourselves with ideas that no one person could have come up with individually, the process of getting to that final result is so much more enjoyable and rewarding.

And in the meantime, you’re building camaraderie, satisfaction, and increasing intrinsic motivation leading to an overall healthy organization.

Improv for team building

An improv workshop or an improv class can be an excellent team building experience for your employees. Improv skills training can increase collaboration and teamwork.

I'd bet that once they get comfortable you might be surprised by the sense of humor of the participants or how an improv game or exercise can break down walls. Improv principles can and should be used in organizations, after all, we're all improvisers at work anyway.

Improv in and of itself is not enough. It is, however, a great tool towards mindfulness, better emotional intelligence, getting comfortable with making mistakes, and collective creativity that can greatly increase the overall quality of output from your leaders and ultimately your team.

So next time you’re approached with an idea, maybe consider saying “yes and...”

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