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  • Writer's pictureSusan & Renée

What can leaders learn from improv?

The comedic greats like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Fred Armisen make it look so easy. Watching these experts do improvisational comedy is like watching a choreographed dance – except that it wasn’t planned at all. The quick wit, energy and collaboration on display seem to be second nature to these experts.

And while spontaneity is what makes improv comedy improvisational, it is grounded in a set of guiding principles that make it a success. These same principles can also be incorporated into the workplace to foster creativity, collaboration, and adaptability.


Leaders would be wise to takes some lessons from improv beginning with these fundamental tenets:


Active Listening: How often do you assume you know what a person is about to say? Do you start crafting your response to someone before they have even finished speaking? That wouldn’t work in the world of improv. Improvisation thrives on active listening. You may have a direction for a skit in mind but if your partner takes it on a different path, you can keep the scene alive only if you have truly heard what they said. 

Leaders who actively listen to their teams build stronger relationships, foster trust, and create an environment where diverse perspectives are valued. This not only enhances communication but also encourages team members to contribute their ideas openly, leading to better decision-making and innovative solutions.


“Yes, and”: It’s expected for leaders to assume a top down approach when solving company challenges by supplying a solution rather than consulting their staff. In improv, however, the magic happens because of the collaborative approach that is taken. The principle of “yes, and” is fundamental to the art of improv and the success of the performance. This means that others’ ideas are embraced and built upon rather than shut down. 

Leaders who adopt this mindset inspire their teams to share innovative ideas without fear of rejection. It encourages a more vibrant and open work environment where collaborative problem solving can yield novel solutions. If your default answer is typically, “No, we can’t do that because…” you may want to practice the “yes, and” mindset.


Resilience: Every leader will at times make mistakes. If you’ve watched any amount of improv, you’ve surely seen performances that bomb. When mistakes are made, improv actors understand that there is no time to dwell on what went wrong. Rather, their success lies in their ability to quickly embrace “failures” and play it off in a fun way. By letting the stress of the misstep roll off, they become free to respond unhindered to what’s happening in the moment. 

Likewise, leaders who can respond quickly to mistakes, rather than dwelling on them, can help their company pivot to a more fruitful direction.


Cultivate trust: Trust among stakeholders is the glue that holds companies together. It keeps the workplace positive and productive. In improv, performers must trust their fellow actors to bring energy and ideas to the stage and to support the momentum of the scene. This creates cohesion and engagement and moves the scene forward. 

Similarly, leaders must actively build a culture of trust among their teams. When employees feel supported and trusted, they are more likely to take initiative and contribute meaningfully to the company’s goals.  


Be all in: The improvisation principle of "being all in" refers to fully committing to the present moment and actively engaging in the task at hand without holding back. Even when an improvised skit is tanking, improv actors continue their support of each other and stay in character until the very end. 

Similarly, when things get rocky in the workplace, employees need to know that leaders have their back and are fully committed to the success of the company and the employees’ wellbeing. The "be all in" mindset also helps adapt to unexpected changes and shift their focus to emerging issues or opportunities without hesitation.


Even if you can’t fit an improv class into your schedule, you can still begin practicing these principles and incorporate them into your leadership style. 

Come back next week when we will share some tips on doing this.

Photo credit: Andrej Lisakov from Unsplash

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