ATD Blog

Leadership Improv: Effective Behaviors for Employee Engagement

Thursday, August 14, 2014

This is Part One of a four-part series on using improvisational behaviors to drive performance.

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 for a positive outcome. Now if that doesn't describe a day at the office, I don't know what does!

These 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. So let's dig into the principles that allow improvisers to be so brilliant in the moment.

Creating a “Yes! Space”

Have you ever wondered why an improv troupe never needs a script? It’s 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. Such immediate acceptance is counter to typical adult responses. We tend to disagree, play devil's advocate, or look for problems first. These behaviors make people feel as though they are not valued, shut down interaction, and kill collaboration.


Agreement however, opens up possibilities in people. The holy grail of development today is figuring out how to engage people in their work and encourage them to give discretionary effort. By voicing the word “yes,” you are embracing possibility. Yes is not a literal commitment, as in "yes, we will." It is a commitment to considering an opportunity, 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 behind the idea. Saying yes becomes a reflex for improvisers, and it can become a reflex for your leaders and you.

Case study

One of my clients, a global architecture firm, was having disastrous results from their charrettes (design reviews). After receiving feedback in the review, the designers walked away, trashed all of their work, and started from scratch, costing significant losses in service fees and budget. When examining why this was taking place, one leader realized designers were only receiving negative feedback. Their assumption was that everything was bad, so they kept starting again, when actually, many aspects of their designs were good.


The issue? No one ever told these designers, "Yes! That part of your design is great." So leadership began to institute ten minutes of “Yes! Space” at the beginning of every charrette. Reviewers could only discuss the positive aspects of the designs at first. Leaders saw an immediate change not only in the preservation of work (and thousands of dollars saved in design time), but also in the attitude of designers. They became excited and engaged in the process again.

Next steps

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 ideas don’t work out, they will come back again to engage.

About the Author


Karen Hough is the founder and CEO of ImprovEdge, which helps companies transform behavior through interactive training. With a presence in five cities, ImprovEdge’s client list includes ESPN, Coach, Nationwide Insurance, Legg Mason, Cardinal Health, Novo Nordisk, and Turner Broadcasting. Karen is also a number 1 Amazon bestselling author, contributor to the Huffington Post, and recipient of the Stevie Silver International Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year 2012, as well as the Athena PowerLink Award for Outstanding Woman-Owned Business. Her second, award-winning book, Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over, was published in 2014 by Berrett-Koehler. 

Karen’s first life was as a professional improviser and actor. She trained with Chicago’s legendary Second City, performed in more than 100 theatrical productions, and was featured on radio, TV, and film. She lived a second life as a successful executive in network engineering. Finally, she became an entrepreneur. Karen is a Certified Speaking Professional and has presented to audiences of thousands both in the United States and internationally. She is a graduate of Yale University and La Sorbonne, Paris IV. 

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