MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

Workplace negativity? Difficult conversations? Turn to improv

Improv for business leaders

At first blush, improv may not seem like an obvious leadership tool. Business often works best when knowledgeable leaders follow a script for getting feedback and fostering buy-in, notes MIT Sloan's Daena Giardella. But business leaders also need to be able to shift their sensemaking skills into high gear–especially in today’s complicated political environment, where leadership and communication cues from the White House may not be the best approach for corporate leaders. Improvisation leadership skills may be required, writes Giardella in a blog post for The Hill.

In a time of governmental volatility and inconsistency, CEOs should "focus on your own stakeholders and pay attention to your real audience," Giardella writes. Improvising means cultivating the ability to react with agility, creativity, and flexibility. It also means developing a mindset that includes curiosity, high-stakes listening, and resilience.

In teaching improv to business leaders, Giardella pushes them out of their comfort zones and sets them up for potential failure as they learn. "And as soon as I say that, usually I get so many eyebrows going up, because of course in a business environment, and certainly an academic environment, use the word fail and people take notice," Giardella tells NPR. "But as an improviser, you gotta know how to rebound. It's not about whether you make the perfect offer, it's about how you rebound if you don't."

Cultivating a "Yes, and" mindset

Improvisers know that there are shifts in status within each conversation, and they use them to their advantage to progress the action of the scene. A hallmark of improvisational leadership skills is the "Yes, and" approach, where one moves the scene forward by creating a collaborative spirit—as opposed to "Yes, but," which creates roadblocks, as Giardella explains in this Quartz blog post. “Yes, but” translates to “Yeah, but that's not really valid because here is the better point."

“’Yes, and,’ does not mean that we have to agree with everything the other person says,” writes Giardella. “In fact, it is most useful in moments of disagreement. It communicates: ‘Yes, I respect your perspective and here is my different perspective—let’s figure this out together.’” In business as well as everyday life, conversations sometimes veer off course, and one or both participants feel disrespected, causing feelings of blame, defensiveness, or withdrawal. According to Giardella, this tactic creates a ramp back onto the paved conversational road. It moves the conversation forward—and towards something.

"Navigating these situations requires an ability to lead and communicate in the moment—to steer the conversation back on course and keep it, and the relationship, on a productive trajectory," she says.

For these reasons and more, Improv is becoming essential course curriculum at business schools, including MIT Sloan School of Management, where Giardella teaches an improvisational leadership class. She also teaches in the multi-language Executive Education program, Global Executive Academy.


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