Playing with Fear (Part Two)


Given the events in Orlando, many of us have been thinking about fear (or experiencing fear).

As a coach and trainer I work with individuals and groups to help people leave their comfort zones, face their fears and perform other than who they are.  My role is to give people what they need to find the joy in this sometimes frightening activity.  Here’s a few of the essential ingredients in my recipe for development:

Appreciation. We all know the difference between working with and for someone who appreciates our contribution, it drives us to give more and take more risks.  By taking a moment to express appreciation for the people in our lives we can have more of the joy and less of the fear.  By appreciating others we touch our shared humanity.

Play and Performance.  We may have reached the point in human history where a new paradigm for human development can emerge.  My mentor and colleague, Dr. Lois Holzman, gave a talk at TEDxNavesink that is worth watching.

In this talk, Dr. Holzman documents the importance of play in our growth and development throughout our entire lives.  Babies and toddlers play their way to growth. They learn how to talk, draw, dance, even think, through playing at what they’re not yet—performing it before they know it. Lucky for us non-babies, the mystery of exactly why and how play is developmental has been revealed and put to use with adults! Across the globe, from board rooms to therapy rooms, from hospital wards to refugee camps, “play revolutionaries” are helping people and communities embrace play as a way to keep developing.

Humor.  I take humor seriously; it is fundamental to who we are as human beings! Laughter brings us closer. We face adversity by discovering the joy and the ridiculousness of being alive through the social activity of creating humor with others.

Creativity.  As my colleague and author Cathy Salit puts it in her book Performance Breakthrough we can “create with crap.”

Can we take our collective creativity and bring it more consciously and more productively into everyday life and work?  Can we create something out of the nasty arguments between colleagues, the disrespectful attitude of a boss or peers, the email system that insists on going over quota with no warning, our impatience with the mistakes of a subordinate, our own belief that everyone else is the problem?  The answer is yes (and yes and yes and yes…).  Through performance, we can create new ways of thinking, new emotions, new language, new characters and new ideas via new scenes and new plays.

In the face of fear we can – we must – find joy by improvising, appreciating, performing, playing, laughing and creating.  Let’s develop!

Google Improv

28mag-teams1-superJumboThis past Sunday the New York Times Magazine published a special issue on Worklife: Rethinking the office for an always-on economy. What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team gets at the heart of why innovative corporations and academic institutions have embraced improvisation and performance.

A number of the findings of the Project Aristotle researchers appear to be fundamentals of improvisation.

…the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues.

“Average social sensitivity” is something that improv training creates in all of us – we learn to create “group mind,” we make others look good, we allow ourselves to actively listen so that we can pick up on tone of voice, expressions and other nonverbal cues – these are the building blocks of good improvisation.

For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

However, establishing psychological safety is, by its very nature, somewhat messy and difficult to implement. You can tell people to take turns during a conversation and to listen to one another more. You can instruct employees to be sensitive to how their colleagues feel and to notice when someone seems upset. But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.

Rozovsky and her colleagues had figured out which norms were most critical. Now they had to find a way to make communication and empathy — the building blocks of forging real connections — into an algorithm they could easily scale.

While Google built algorithms to measure and scale “particular norms” that led to the establishment of “psychologically safe environments,” following the rules of improvisation create a safe environment where participants learn to agree, to say “yes,” and to find their way to collaboration, rather than disagreement.  I wholeheartedly agree that communication and empathy are building blocks of forging “real connections,” but I would offer that along with building an algorithm (this is Google, after all), we also need to build an improvisational, performance-oriented environment.  When we perform we are able to be who we are becoming, we can be other than who we are, we can agree even when we “feel” like disagreeing.

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.

The best theatre directors ensure that their actors feel “psychologically safe” in order to express the messiness of our lives, emotionally and otherwise.  The paragraph above made me think a lot about being an actor and about performance.   It reminded me of conversations that I participated in as a member of the Castillo Theatre ensemble with our former Artistic Director, Fred Newman.  Newman was a brilliant director and public philosopher (he earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Stanford) who, as a practicing social therapist, developed a psychology of becoming that introduced performance as a method of growth and development.  We used to have conversations with Fred about traditional Method acting and the notion that one could “lose oneself in a character,” an odd notion, as we are always and at once who we are, and who we are becoming.  We cannot leave part of our personality or “inner life” at home; we take ourselves wherever we go.  What we can do is perform.

Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized. Rozovsky herself was reminded of this midway through her work with the Project Aristotle team. ‘‘We were in a meeting where I made a mistake,’’ Rozovsky told me. She sent out a note afterward explaining how she was going to remedy the problem. ‘‘I got an email back from a team member that said, ‘Ouch,’ ’’ she recalled. ‘‘It was like a punch to the gut. I was already upset about making this mistake, and this note totally played on my insecurities.’’

Along with active listening, saying “yes,” building with what others give you (yes, and…), one of the important tenets of improvisation is to embrace mistakes.  In teaching improv and facilitating improv workshops we direct students to joyfully perform, “Yay, I made a mistake!” Why?  Because mistakes and failure is where creativity lies.

The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.

The fact that these insights aren’t wholly original doesn’t mean Google’s contributions aren’t valuable. In fact, in some ways, the ‘‘employee performance optimization’’ movement has given us a method for talking about our insecurities, fears and aspirations in more constructive ways. It also has given us the tools to quickly teach lessons that once took managers decades to absorb. Google, in other words, in its race to build the perfect team, has perhaps unintentionally demonstrated the usefulness of imperfection and done what Silicon Valley does best: figure out how to create psychological safety faster, better and in more productive ways.

With all due respect to Google, Project Aristotle and “employee performance optimization,” companies – large and small – that care about their employees and improving our lives at work would do well to bring performance, play and improvisation into the workplace.

Time to take a shot!

UnknownAfter seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical, Hamilton and listening (endlessly) to the score, his lyrics and music have been inspiring me on a daily basis.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the professional and personal activity of “taking a shot,” pursuing a dream or making the choice to change careers or jobs.  In my work as an executive coach I often help people pursue new professional challenges using a performance-based approach.  Many of my clients struggle to fulfill their potential and to see the myriad of  possibilities that lie in front of them.  We can easily become dispirited living in our turbulent and chaotic world and yet we can…

Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!

Learning to live in the moment means embracing the words that the Schuyler sisters sing:

History is happening.

And we are making history as we create our lives.  We perform in ensembles – some of us perform on the Broadways stage in Hamilton, others perform in ensembles at the office or in our living rooms, but performers we are.

A wonderful thing about being human is that we can (and we must) learn from failure. We can play any scene over or with a new emotion or intention. We can always grow.

Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints,

it takes and it takes and it takes
and we keep living anyway, 

we rise and we fall and we break
and we make our mistakes. and if there’s a reason I’m still alive

when so many have died,
then I’m willin’ to wait for it.

Don’t wait too long.  Take Hamilton’s words to heart:

I’m not throwing away my shot!

Playing with fear

20151212_cuk400-20151210_1 When this week’s edition of The Economist arrived I looked at the cover story headline and thought, “This is the perfect title for a new blog post!”  Although it is true that the media and certain public figures are “playing” with our fears in a negative way, when I saw the word playing the improviser in me started playing in a positive way!

You see, it turns out that I had saved the illustration below to help inspire a new blog post; after all, ’tis the season for joy and it’s a moment when many Americans are fearful:

I love the insertion of IMPROV between JOY and FEAR.  Why?  Because performance is the human ability to simultaneously be who we are and who we are not/who we are becoming. In the midst of the media assault and events that create our collective (and individual) fear, it can be difficult to embrace the things and people in our lives that create joy.  As a member of an improvisational ensemble, we often find ourselves on stage jumping into our fears and in the relational activity of creating scenes with others we find joy.

And so it is in life as lived.  Playing with fear means taking Shakespeare’s famous quote “All the world’s a stage” seriously. When we create with others, using everything we’ve got to create with, including our fears, we transform; we can be who we are (fearful) and who we are not (joyous).  When we create our lives we embrace all of who we were, who we are, and who we are becoming.

‘Tis the season to be improvising!


Humanize the Interview Process – Become a Relational Recruiter

There have been some interesting reports about employee retention and turnover that started me thinking about why people look for new opportunities and how that impacts recruiting.  The Society for Human Resource Management recently published a report entitled “Skills Gap, Turnover Are Top Talent Concerns” in which they found:

About one-fourth of employees reported that they are likely to look for a new job in the next 12 months. They cited unhappiness with current salary (23 percent), followed by looking for a better opportunity (19 percent), not feeling valued (16 percent) and unhappiness with growth opportunities (13 percent). just published their Talent Attraction Study: What Matters to the Modern Candidate in which they found:

71% of people are actively looking or open to a new job, and 90% of people hired within the past year actively looked for a job within six months prior to being hired. Also, 65% look at new jobs again within 91 days of starting a new job, leading us to believe that no one is “passive” about their career in 2015.

Indeed’s conclusion that “no one is passive about their career in 2015” led me to think about what people mean when they say they want “a better opportunity.”  On one hand, there is always going to be a grouping of people who will opportunistically move for better compensation packages.  Resumes that show a new position every 2-3 years are often representative of the person who is moving for better salary.  On the other hand, the more interesting question is what do we need to do to make people “feel valued” from the moment we reach out to them in the recruiting process.

All too often hiring managers and recruiters can forget that every aspect of the recruitment process is an opportunity to let potential hires know they are valued.  Recruitment agencies and internal recruiters ought to convey in their initial outreach that the human equation is what matters, not filling the job; we are in a relationship-oriented business.  All too often the relational aspect of recruiting and hiring is second to the need for speed and efficiency in recruiting which can lead to a commoditized process in which candidates feel like a cog in the wheel, rather than a respected and valued future member of an organization.

Interestingly, I read an article yesterday – The Trouble With Behavioral Interviewing – that is quite relevant to how we recruit talent.  I especially appreciate this comment from author Liz Ryan:

We are human all the time. We are foolish to turn job interviews, such potentially fun and fizzy human processes, into tense and grovelly affairs.

As a recruiter who is also an improviser, the activity of creating conversation is where I put my focus.  Again, I appreciate Ryan’s perspective:

If you care about talent, you won’t want to interview people from a script. You’ll want to sit down with them next to a whiteboard and brainstorm like crazy. How else will you know whether your energies resonate together?

Once I’ve established that a person is qualified for the role, I abandon “interview questions” all together in favor of having a wide-ranging conversation.  We can learn valuable information about a candidate when we allow ourselves to explore who someone is in the world, how they express their intellectual curiosity, and discover their goals both personally and professionally.  In the long run recruiting is about building rapport.  It is refreshing to create the conditions that eliminate the hierarchical framework that comes with a more traditional recruiting paradigm in favor of getting to know each other.

Is Recruiting Part of Your Marketing Plan?

Marketing is an important and overlooked aspect of recruiting, so I was happy to see this article in Inc. 5 Ways to Recruit Like a Marketer.  The best recruiters are creative – they function as marketers, storytellers and public relations consultants to their clients at the same time they are assessing talent and culture fit.

Times have changed and if you want to find top talent, you have to be creative. (How Recruiting is Being Disrupted, And Why You Should Care)

In the same way that an outside marketing or PR firm develops a company’s brand to sell their goods and services, a creative recruiter delivers a compelling story/message to the marketplace.

In recent years recruiting has become transaction-oriented rather than a creative, relationship-oriented activity. Having conversations about career opportunities with prospective candidates is, indeed, a creative activity – a performed, improvisational conversation.  Sadly in some cases the conversation between a prospective candidate and recruiter is overly “scripted” and the person on the other end of the phone quickly ends the call.

Marketers carefully study their audience to understand their attitudes and behaviors in order to create the right messages. They create detailed customer personas that profile their typical target audience member, detailing their wants, needs, and everyday problems. To reach the right job seekers, you need to know everything about them. What motivates them? What are their goals? What do they value in a workplace? Draw up the persona of your dream candidate for the job and then target them, based on their wants and needs.

Taking a clue from marketing, recruiters target the right population with our research and craft/deliver a message that will compel a passive job seeker to seriously consider a new career opportunity.  A recent report on LinkedIn stated the following:

Only 61% of global companies have a strategy for passive candidate recruiting. These are surprising stats, since the latest data on the passive/active candidate split shows that over 75% of professionals are passive — they would not proactively seek out and apply to jobs. That’s a huge talent pool to miss out on. (The Global Trends that will Shape Recruiting in 2015)

Marketing is a value-added service that is often overlooked when hiring an outside recruiting firm.  The creative recruiter is a hybrid marketer/public relations/executive search consultant.  Hiring recruiters with this combination of skills, combined with a relationship-oriented approach to recruiting, is the way to win talent in a more competitive hiring environment.

The Myth of Cultural Fit

The New York Times recently published a terrific opinion piece – Guess Who Doesn’t Fit in at Work – about “cultural fit.”  The writer, Lauren A. Rivera, is also the author of a book entitled “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs” and her valuable insights made me think a lot about the value of working in groups of people who are very different from ourselves. Given our global economy and shifting demographics Americans, in particular, would do well to develop a greater capacity to find ways to build with people who “different.”  I agree with Rivera that the bias towards “cultural fit” might be a fetter to creativity and innovation:

Some may wonder, “Don’t similar people work better together?” Yes and no. For jobs involving complex decisions and creativity, more diverse teams outperform less diverse ones. Too much similarity can lead to teams that are overconfident, ignore vital information and make poor (or even unethical) decisions.

It’s not surprising that the lack of diverse teams made up of people from different economic, racial and gender groupings lead to dysfunction not efficiency. Perhaps this is why confidence in the U.S. Congress is at an all time low!

Rivera is correct that more and more interviews are conducted as “get to know each other” conversations rather than screening for skills and abilities.  “No one asked me a hard question” is a common (and disappointed) response that I hear from candidates when I debrief them about their interviews. The image that comes to mind is a scene from Mad Man, where co-workers hang out an drink together, rather than engaging in the rewarding activity of learning peoples’ differences and then figuring out how to use those differences to build something new together.

Another salient point that Rivera makes reminds me of why I have had a lifelong love affair with the theatre, an ensemble-based creative activity:

When it comes to creating a cohesive work force, managers often discount the power of shared experiences on the job, especially working interdependently on a high-stakes project. The more time we spend with co-workers, the more similar to them we tend to become.

Theatre and performance teach us that we can go beyond ourselves and play and perform with all kinds of people (children do this the best) regardless of whether we have anything “in common.” We get to know each other by working and co-creating together, it really doesn’t matter if we’ve attended the same school or have the same hobbies. The greatness of America lies in our diversity. Getting out of ourselves might just turn out to be more important than fitting in with others!

Grading Employees Fails Us All

BT-AB319_RATING_12U_20150420175718Every once in awhile my husband likes to tease me about the fact that I didn’t receive grades, and therefore had no grade point average, as a student at Sarah Lawrence College. Our professors wrote evaluations about our work and the progress we were making in our studies but we never received grades. One of the many things that I have come to value about my education was the privilege I was afforded in attending an alternative high school and a liberal arts college that were not grading students.

Not having to worry about grades meant that we were was able to focus on learning instead of worrying about competing against each other. There was never any thought or concern about grade point average and whether or not we would make it to “the top of the class.” We were fortunate to have been participants in developmental learning environments where students were encouraged to be co-creators of our education. I began thinking about the positive impact that this had on my life when I read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal: The Trouble with Grading Employees.

For many professionals receiving a grade determines opportunities for promotion, raises in compensation and annual bonuses. As the article correctly points out, grading is a subjective activity that is often demoralizing. I was happy to read about the Gap’s approach to evaluating employees:

The Gap’s new approach dumps ratings in favor of monthly coaching sessions and frequent employee-manager conversations. But HR executives had to convince leaders that the move wasn’t “sacrilegious,” according to Eric Severson, the company’s co-head of human resources.

For as much as our culture values competition, when we are offered the chance to work (or study, or play) in a cooperative environment, people perform at a higher level.  Having monthly coaching sessions and ongoing conversations relates to employees as creators of their work environments. Relating to each other as co-creators frees us from some of the constraints of the roles we play in the workplace, i.e., employee, manager, over-worked boss, disgruntled worker, etc.

Being a co-creator is one of many things that I love about improvisation.  A well-trained improviser is always focused on making their partner look good.  It’s almost impossible to keep an improv scene going if you are competing to be the funniest, cleverest, scene-stealing person on stage.  Improvisers put their focus on “the other” as we listen and build with whatever our scene partner gives us to create with.

When I read the quote below my response was to say, “Really? I beg to differ!” –

 “We don’t want to be in a place where everyone’s an outstanding,” she said.

The fact of the matter is that we can transform the workplace by self-consciously creating the conditions for developmental learning environments where everyone is an outstanding!

For more about developmental learning environments check out the website and work of my colleague Dr. Lois Holzman, a leading proponent of cultural approaches to learning and development.

Be Subversive!

 Most of us have have had the experience at work of not saying what is on our mind because the environment demands that we stay in the box, yet we are expected to think out of the box.  Sometimes we feel inadequate because we don’t fit the mold.  We conform or adapt to what we think is the norm in order fit into a corporate culture, a team, or an idealized vision of a leader.

Our institutions, from universities to Boardrooms, are fundamentally competitive and individualized.  We compare ourselves to others and whether we are students or executives, we are made to feel inadequate if we are not labeled “A players.”  Business school students are taught that their “soft skills” (creativity) that are less valuable than their “hard skills” (analytics).  Women are told they need to “toughen up” in order to lead.

We think we have to act according to how we feel.  We might intellectually understand the value of celebrating mistakes and failures, yet we stress over them and are afraid of their consequences.  We know it’s good to unplug but we buy into the notion that successful people work 24/7 so we wake up, grab our phones by the beside, and check our emails while we still have sleep in our eyes.

A recent article in the HBR caught my eye – The Heretic’s Guide to Getting More Done by David Brendel, MD, PhD.  The headings of each section of the article make me smile:

When I am coaching people I give them permission to be subversive, defined as seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution.  Being subversive in a business context (and in all walks of life) is developmental.  It frees us from the constraints of doing business as usual, which is all too often confining and prevents us from giving full expression to our creative capacities.  We live in a historical moment where many of our institutions are failing us and our children.  It is a moment that demands innovation, leadership and a new vision of what our country and our world can become.

In order to grow we have to find ways to be who we are becoming; we create our lives. We don’t have to conform to the rules, we don’t even have to conform to the rules that we established for ourselves!  We can, in appropriate ways, be subversive, we can be heretics, we can bust out of the conventional ways that we learn to play certain roles in order to write a new play for ourselves, for our co-workers, for our fellow Americans and citizens of the world.  In this way we can develop environments for innovation, leadership and creativity.

All of this demands that we PERFORM, PLAY and BE SUBVERSIVE!

Interviewing – It’s a Performance! (Part Two)

imagesFrom time to time I get asked to coach MBA students at NYU Stern to help them prepare for interviews to secure summer  internships and/or a job upon graduation.  Most of my coaching clients at Stern have not had an easy time at these interviews and sometimes feel that there is something lacking.  These are very bright and well prepared students who don’t have the performance skills needed to succeed in a highly competitive environment.  This is, of course, also true for seasoned executives who find themselves interviewing for the first time in a long time.

An Interview is a performed conversation.  It requires a great deal of listening, creating conversation and performance energy.  Most people go into interviews looking to “say the “right thing” so they can “get it right” – that activity bypasses the creative activity of developing a performed conversation with someone and, instead, focuses on the end result (getting the job or the internship).  Perhaps you’re thinking “creativity in an interview?” so let’s deconstruct this thing we call an interview and put it into a theatrical context.

The scene begins with a warm smile and a solid handshake.  The performance demands that the interviewee be fully present, making eye contact, seated in a relaxed manner, self-conciously breathing and engaged.  This is a good moment to focus on the person across from you – giving full attention to the slow and steady building of the conversation.  Focus should be on the two words that we use in improvisation – “yes and” – listen to the questions, and respond.  Acknowledge what you’ve been asked (that is the “yes”) and respond in a way that builds the conversation (that is the “and”).  If you keep your focus on this activity versus “getting it right” or “saying something smart” you will build rapport, which is often overlooked during an interview.  Most candidates talk too much when they are being interviewed, which often happens as a result of nervousness.  You might want to stop and ask, “Would you like me to elaborate?” rather than going on and on and ignoring that your interviewer’s eyes have glazed over.  A good performer is very aware of her/his scene partner and when possible, works to make her/him look good.  That might mean saying, “That’s a great question!” with a smile even if you’re thinking, “How am I going to answer THAT question?!”

Another tool to bring into an interview is creative imitation.  A great way to develop an interview performance is to think of someone you admire for their performance skills – a mentor, a professor, a favorite actor, a great TED Talk – it doesn’t matter who you have in mind.  Once you think of that person the fun part is to perform your creative imitation of that person … in an interview.  This is a way to step a little bit (or a lot) outside of your comfort zone and pretend, play and perform as someone other than who you are.  The beauty of performance is that of course you are always who you are and at the same time you are other than who you are!  This uniquely human capability allows us to be shy and perform outgoing, to be insecure and perform confidence.

The magical thing about performance is that, after awhile, you might very well become a person who aces interviews – not by “getting it right” – but by creating a deliberate, self-conscious, thoughtful performance of an interview.