Build A Good Environment Lately?

As an executive coach, teacher and trainer who uses improvisation to help people grow and develop, one of my favorite things is to develop my skills by learning from master teachers.  Last weekend I had the good fortune to attend a workshop called, “Problems, Problems” with David Razowsky, former Artistic Director of Second City in Los Angeles who is often referred to as an Improv Guru.

Watching someone as passionate as David was inspiring.  I feel a kinship with David’s ability and determination to give each student the opportunity to grow by placing loving demands in a safe and trusting environment.  He worked with each student to help us develop tools to go beyond our “improv problems”.  His attention was both on the individuals and on creating an environment that the group would need to take a step into the unknown and grow.

We often find ourselves in environments that are not supportive of the type of risks we have to take in order to go beyond ourselves, to go beyond our usual ways of performing – whether our stage is a theatrical stage or a professional stage.  We are all environment-builders.  Each one of us can take responsibility for creating the environments we find ourselves in so that people can be heard, can take risks and can grow and develop.

Razowsky encourages his students to be present, mindful and in the moment.  Being in a group of people who are together in this way changes the environment.  (Think yoga class!)  It creates trust.

In a business setting we can create more supportive environments by making minute-to-minute decisions about what we are going to say to peers, to people we manage, to our managers and in meetings.  Strong leaders are passionately engaged in creating the very best environment for everyone to succeed.  Constantly asking ourselves and others, “How will this help build the environment?” is an important element of environment-building.  The environment might mean a corporate culture, or how a team works together, a meeting or conversation between two people in the hallway.

In a meeting or one-on-one you might decide to change what or how you are going to contribute to the conversation.  Ask yourself if what you want to say will support the group (two people being the smallest group).

In an improvisational scene the improviser often thinks of something clever to say; a skilled improviser will ask her/his self, “Will responding in this way support my partner?  Will it support the scene?  Will it support the relationship we are creating?”  These are important questions for all of us to be asking when we are building environments for growth.


Can the workplace be joyful?

In discussions with various executives I’ve been hearing a lot about their difficulties building positive relationships with work colleagues and/or with their teams.  This very crucial element of our work life — relationship-building — is often ignored or under-valued.

Managers can forget that the people they manage… are people.  We are a social, relational species.  The social environment that is created in the workplace can foster innovation, creativity and collaboration or it can foster demoralization, competition and isolation.

I’ve been reading the myriad of articles about Steve Jobs that have appeared this week.  In creating this blog post I was reflecting on this quote from Roberto Verganti’s HBR blog post, Steve Jobs and Management by Meaning :

“Managing by meaning” is recognizing that people are human: they have rational, cultural, and emotional dimensions, and they appreciate the person who creates a meaning for them to embrace.

An executive shared with me that she is tasked with building a team within a corporate culture that is very individually oriented where competition rules.  As is  often the case in this type of corporate culture, managers do not step back and think about how to engage their team members.  There is very little listening going on and it’s often the case that managers engage in sarcasm or are overly critical in trying to move work forward.  As she puts it, “everyone is speedy and every conversation is rushed.” The emotional dimension of who we are as human beings is so often left out of the equation. Play, improvisation and performance are a critical tool in creating the conditions for collaboration and creativity.

Here’s a valuable quote from Lois Holzman’s book Vygotsky at Work and Play:

One of the values of bringing improv to the workplace is its potential to impact on conversation, not only to minimize such unpleasant exchanges but also to give people a method to transform it into something closer to the creative meaning-making activity it is with babies (but in an adult- and workplace-appropropriate manner).  This is exceedingly difficult for adults to do with any consistency.  To get good at it requires a lot of practice, not only in speaking but also in listening, because in ordinary conversations, including those at the workplace, people tend to listen very selectively to what others are saying –  to hear something they agree or disagree with, to assess the “truth value” of what is said, to size up the speaker and try to figure out what she or he “really” means, to plan a comeback, to hear the pause that signals “it’s my turn now” – or all of the above.  “Yes, and” exercises are the main way improvisors practice listening.

Saying “yes and” instead of “no but” is how we build with each other.  It is a recognition of the “we” who work together to accomplish whatever needs to be done.  Listening is a critical tool, as is a recognition that how we say what we say impacts on “the other” – the “creative meaning-making activity”.  Having our focus on “the other” or the “we” is where creativity and collaboration lives. We are meaning-makers. Perhaps this is what Verganti was referring to in saying that Steve Jobs was “managing by meaning”.

Another executive I’ve been working with shared with me that he attended a company-sponsored communication workshop where there was discussion about the fact that people have different personalities and styles of working.  He became aware that he could get better at understanding how he needs to talk to someone and anticipate how they will hear what he’s saying. If a colleague is very analytically-oriented, he cannot come at them with a 30,000 foot view idea — he needs to come to them given what they need and how they see.  We are developing his performance to improve his ability to talk and listen in a new way.

Can the workplace be joyful?

In my work as an Executive Clown I teach executives the value of pointless play and improvisation so that they can utilize the improvisors tool-kit everywhere they find themselves (including the workplace) to live more productive, creative, joyful lives.

Yes and…