As part of my high school speech and debate team, we were also required to compete with an improv troupe…and I dreaded it. I was an introverted perfectionist who wanted everything to go perfectly and if perfection happens in improv, you’re most likely doing it wrong. It’s chaotic, but when done well, everything falls into place.
That’s because improv, chaotic though it may seem, has one basic rule. Surprisingly, that rule also has a huge impact on how I approach leadership.
The #1 rule of improv is “always agree.” It’s more commonly known as the “yes, and” rule. The premise in any improvised scene is simple. Start with “yes” and then build on to the proposed idea. Sometimes, this means throwing your own ideas out the window to build on the scene your partner already established.
In her book, Bossypants, Tina Fey explains:
“When you’re improvising … you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas!...” then we have a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.”
This rule helps actors find common ground so that two people can create something together. Both people are passionate about the success of the scene, because both parties had a hand in creating it. It can be uncomfortable sometimes, but out of that discomfort can come amazing collaboration and brand new ideas.
Many new (and experienced) leaders feel they need to have all the answers. They feel they need to lead the conversations and propose the best solutions. But as the saying goes, “if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”
As a coach, you probably won’t always agree with what your coachee has to say. But to make them feel heard and reach for better solutions, it’s your job to find common ground. You won’t (and shouldn’t) always agree with everything your coachee says, but you should, as Tina Fey puts it “respect what your partner has created.”
This coaching rule isn’t about just being agreeable. You must also contribute. Say “yes, AND.” In some instances, this could mean adding your own thoughts to the discussion. More often it means drawing the “and” out of your coachee. Find that point of agreement and then ask, “what else?” What other great ideas can your team member come up with? They probably won’t be the same as your ideas, but at the end of the day, it’s not your scene.
When (and only when) the coachee has exhausted their ideas, then the coachee is ready to hear your own suggestions that build on their ideas and keep the “scene” moving forward. Remember: in coaching as in improv, the fun isn’t just in finding an answer, but how you get there. What matters most is what will work for the team member doing the work.
Share the stage with your team members. Respect what your team members have created and you can help them build on their ideas and create something everyone can be proud of.