THE BLOG
09/14/2014 10:03 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2014

Improvise - Great Leaders Say Yes First

The Power of Yes!

We all improvise, every day. Every time we deal with an unexpected setback in the office or collaborate on a great project, we are using behaviors grounded in improvisation.

When leaders exhibit improvisational behaviors (such as flexibility, positivity and humor) people connect with them. Leaders build trust with their teams when they are positive, and those teams in turn, engage and want to perform.

By definition, improvisation is an art form that allows performers to create in the moment, without script, score or plan. When an improv comedy troupe takes the stage, or a jazz musician starts riffing, no one really knows what will happen next.

Why should we care? Improv is about high performance despite lack of resources (no costumes or props), managing risk and thinking in the moment (handling the audience reactions), and collaborating in the moment for a positive outcome. Now if that doesn't describe a day at the office, I don't know what does!

These sorts of behaviors can be learned. As we develop our current and emerging leaders, it's critical to introduce the ideas of flexibility, thinking on your feet, collaboration and acceptance. First, let's dig into the principle that allows improvisers to be so brilliant in the moment.

Yes! Space
Know why an improv troupe never needs a script? Because we've agreed to say "Yes" to every contribution. Whenever someone adds an element to the show, "There's a lion over there!" the entire group onstage reacts and accepts that yes, there is a lion over there. That immediate acceptance is counter to statistical adult responses. We tend to disagree, play the devil's advocate, or look for issues first. That makes people feel as though they are not valued, shuts down interaction and kills collaboration.

Agreement however, opens people up. By voicing the word yes, you are saying yes to possibility. Yes is not a literal commitment, as in "Yes, we will." It is a commitment to considering a possibility, as in "Yes, we could." This means that every idea or contribution is considered valid. In improv, the improviser's belief that every idea is valid also assumes that every person is valid. It is imperative to acknowledge an idea's existence and importance by saying yes to both the idea and the person. Saying yes becomes a reflex for improvisers, and it can become a reflex for you and your leaders.

Case Study
One of my clients, a global architecture firm, was having disastrous results from their charrettes (design reviews). After getting feedback in the review, the designers walked away, trashed all of their work and started over. Can you imagine how much that cost in service fees and lost budget?! In examining why, one leader realized it was because the designers were only receiving negative feedback. Their assumption was that everything was bad, so they kept starting over, when actually, many aspects of their designs were good. The issue? No one ever told them, "Yes! That part of your design is great."

Leadership instituted 10 minutes of Yes! Space at the beginning of every charrette. Reviewers could only discuss the positive aspects of the designs first. Leaders saw an immediate change not only in the preservation of work (and many thousands of dollars saved in design time) but also in the attitude of designers. They became excited and engaged in the process again. And isn't that the holy grail of development today - figuring out how to engage people in their work and encourage them to give discretionary effort?

Now What?
It's so simple yet revolutionary. Event organizers always ask me how I get such high levels of engagement from the groups I facilitate.

I say Yes. That's how I do it.

Whenever someone contributes, the first word out of my mouth is yes. The group learns that it is safe to share - they won't be criticized or ignored and interaction skyrockets. Even if the comment is negative or difficult, I say, "Yes, I hear your concerns. Tell us more about that." When people are greeted with agreement, even if in the end their idea doesn't work out, they will come back again to engage.

Karen Hough is the Founder and CEO of ImprovEdge, an Amazon #1 bestselling author and contributor to the Huffington Post. Her second, award-winning book, "Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over" is now available from publisher Berrett-Koehler. She is the recipient of the Stevie International Silver Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year and the Athena PowerLink Award for outstanding woman-owned business. She is a Yale graduate and international speaker.