Improv is NOT for Everyone

I fell in love with the art of improvisation over ten years ago. Within mere MINUTES of my first experience with the craft I could sense that it was going to be absolutely life changing. I knew it would be an influential skill set from then on. I felt it should be a part of EVERYONE’S lives. How could something this profound exist and the whole world not function on its premise?

Within weeks of participating in improv rehearsals (which I know sounds like an oxymoron, but just roll with it,) I began to notice the way that the performance skills were shaping the way I was communicating with those around me, both personally and professionally. It was a delightful discovery. I felt like I was more present during conversations than I’d ever been before, and I felt more positive in the way that I interacted with my friends and co-workers. I found myself really LISTENING to people when they spoke, and observing the accompanying body language. Suddenly, I was noticing that the different perspectives and opinions people had were no less valid than my own, and, in fact, provide much more robust conversations.

I was in a management role at a retail bank branch at the time, and I can recall specific moments where choosing to listen rather than to speak ultimately made my job easier. A new teller of mine, for example, was having a hard time balancing her drawer one evening and was digging through her work in a fluster trying to match up the transactions. Not to brag, but I was EXCELLENT at finding outages, although my personal drawer was rarely out of balance. I often swooped in to fix problems for my teammates so we could just be done already.

On that evening, she was stressing out as the minutes ticked by and instinctively I headed over from my desk, leaving some of my work unfinished for the eve, to help her balance. Instead of snatching the pile of paperwork to match up with her computer records, I tried staying a step back and just chatting with her for a moment about the day. She was able to accomplish a couple things very quickly; one being that she clearly needed to vent after a busy day, and the second being a particularly frustrating customer scenario with a grumpy and unorganized woman who was very condescending during the transaction.

That was the first transaction I suggested we double check. Sure enough, the combo of lots of checks, cash, and coin PLUS a handwritten note the lady had scribbled on a scrap of paper indicating the denominations for cash back for their petty-cash box had proven to be the transaction that threw her off. Huzzah! “You found the outage! Nice work.” I said. She was able to balance her drawer AND felt really confident in herself for finding it so quickly by taking time to mentally process her own day.

We finished up closing procedures and locked up for the night. She was smiling and talking about her plans for the night. The tension from the day had melted away. I had put into action a simple skill of making others look good – which I’d just barely learned from an improv exercise. Without pointing it out to her, I’d helped her become the hero of the situation. Her confidence level continued to grow and she would excitedly tackle future cash drawer outages on her own. As a manager with a mile-high pile of my own work, I felt like the real winner to have her achieve a new level of independence and ownership over her own workload.

What a breakthrough! I continued to implement the mindset and tools of improv every day at work. The relationships I had with my teammates were productive and FUN. I could feel myself actually CHANGING for the better.

I continued to embrace this positive outlet in my life with weekly performances and rehearsals with these wildly fun and entertaining new friends of mine for many years.  They have helped me to understand the potential of what we CAN do when we activate the skills of improv.

People feel more human. Engagement levels and idea sharing increases. There is a huge boost in TRUST within the workgroup. And all of these important components happen in a way that feels natural because of the fun people can have together when they are free and comfortable with providing input and opinions in the office without risk.

No surprise, years later I started a company with my older brother, who originally extended the invite to me to join in on the improv experience that had started it all, wherein we use the skills of improvisation as the curriculum for corporate training and team building events. Our company is called Zip Zap Zop, named after a simple and engaging improv game. We hand-pick activities that demonstrate the underlying principles of improv (primarily confidence, listening, non-verbal communication queues, and turbo-charging creativity) and bring them into the workplace. It works for any industry, and with groups of any size. There are no barriers of education levels or generational dividers. It is absolutely universal in principle.

Those who experience it report feeling happier, having better posture, feeling more relaxed, comfortable sharing ideas without risk of being shut down, and express their excitement about the new found potential they see with their teams.

Talking a management team into TRYING something new (improv workshop, anyone?) is the hard part. Thus the point of this blog post. I firmly believe that the skills of improv can make anyone a better person and can make any work environment a better one to log countless hours in. Yet, during the past year I have met some people who just cannot let go of their perceived control in the office. With improv, you have to have the buy in from everyone involved, including management.

I’ve had the learning experiences where people who call themselves a leader bent over backwards to try and manipulate the simple activities we were performing in order to achieve THEIR desired result. You see, with improv, there is a lot of room for brainstorming and creativity. This is a GOOD thing. Yet, some people in management fear that by letting their teams stretch their mental legs that they will somehow lose control over their teams and the scope of work that must be completed, when really the opposite is true. They fear idea sharing and letting people confidently voice their opinions. They fear that allowing a healthy balance of personal relationships and comradery in the office will detract from the business tasks at hand.

This FEAR will hold teams back. It will result in continual turn-over of employees. It will ultimately cost more to the company’s bottom line when people are just employees and not the awesomely unique HUMANS that they are capable of being.

If you can’t stand the thought of making others look good, thereby making you look good, and subsequently making your whole team and company look good, MAYBE improv isn’t for you. If you are closed-minded, stuck in “the way we’ve always done it,” or think your ideas are ALWAYS the best, maybe improv isn’t for you. If you think you are a leader and you haven’t turned around recently to see if there are actually people following your leadership, maybe you aren’t a leader. If you don’t see the power of many minds working together, MAYBE improv isn’t for you.

But, if you want to increase your own capacity and boost the morale in your office? If you want to infuse your company culture with an upbeat approach to learning? You understand how to maximize the potential within each of your teammates and encourage them to improve themselves? Then do what we improvisers do. Say “YES.”

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