Image adapted from camdiluv/flickr
The skills cultivated in improvisation — communication, creativity, teamwork, taking risks, and resilience — are ones you’d want to see on a résumé. Business schools are taking note and even teaching improv. Robert Kulhan, adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business explains, that at its core, “Improvisation isn’t about comedy, it’s about reacting — being focused and present in the moment at a very high level.”
One of the most fundamental principles of improv which produces that mindful reacting is “Yes, and”. You accept and agree with what someone has said, and you’re not done until you build upon it, which requires listening, understanding, and insight.
That “and” generates possibility, and as Tina Fey writes in Bossypants, responsibility. For her, “Yes, and” means, “[D]on’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.”
However, if you respond with negativity, by questioning the premise, by saying “Yes, but”, you abandon your partner and shut down the scene by refusing to engage. What’s worse is that this conduct signifies that those initiations and ideas are not worthwhile and cultivates fear of contribution.
We often buy into the impression that work is about being right, critical, and steely, as if our ideal work persona were Simon Cowell. But that kind of behavior leaves people out to dry. Often when it comes time to act, move, brainstorm, and make decisions — when it’s showtime! — it does no good to sit around the table with our arms and attitudes crossed. James Mitchell, founder of Improboost, who runs workshops in D.C. to boost teamwork and performance through improv techniques, sees this happen all too often in the workplace.
He recounts, “Many of my students work in competitive office environments, and have learned to say ‘Yes, but.’ You see this in office meetings all the time. One person comes up with a proposal, and a co-worker will immediately come up with a host of reasons why it won’t work. When ‘Yes, And’ is violated on stage, the scene goes downhill; when it’s violated at work, it leads to stifled thinking and a poor work product. People are reluctant to offer creative ideas for fear that their scene partner — or co-worker or boss — will shut them down.”
Those employees who feel stifled, shut down, or even belittled, for sharing their ideas, become unproductive, disengaged, and resentful, and those feelings are unhealthy in the workplace. Why? Our emotions affect cognitive functions like memory, attention, and reasoning. Negative emotions actually narrow our view, interfere with rational decision-making, and inhibit taking risks.
On the bright side, positive emotions broaden thinking and action and increase creativity levels. According to psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, such expansion and growth helps build up personal skills and resources. When “Yes, and” becomes part of a work culture of openness, where ideas are encouraged, heeded, and developed, both the individual and the organization broaden, build, and enrich themselves.
So put an end to your Simon Cowell ‘tude. Suspend your judgment and criticality when you don’t want close off conversation and possibility. “Yes, and” requires openness. Go with the flow and add to the momentum.
As Mitchell notes, “In a safe space for brainstorming, people build upon one another’s ideas and add their own unique flavor to the mix; it’s amazing to witness it in action.”