Becoming a dependable boss

I recently read an excellent post by Daniel Goleman on LinkedIn titled “Teams need a dependable boss“.  This paragraph jumped out at me:

People who feel that their boss provides a secure base, Kohlrieser finds, are more free to explore, be playful, take risks, innovate, and take on new challenges. Another business benefit: if leaders establish such trust and safety, then when they give tough feedback, the person receiving it not only stays more open but sees benefit in getting even hard-to-take information.

I agree wholeheartedly with what Goleman has to say about the impact of a manager who supports her/his team to grow and develop.  Allowing people to be playful might be the best thing that a boss can do to foster an environment of innovation, team work and discovery.

In my coaching work with professionals I often say that the most difficult role in the workplace, the most challenging work, is managing people.  Too often managers relate to people as though we could leave our emotional responses to each other outside of the office.  The most talented managers embrace the totality of the people on their team – they don’t shy away from intimacy and the caring it takes to have hard conversations.  Some managers can make strong demands because they have created an environment in which they are trusted.

This performance is not one that comes easy to people.  It demands a constant focus on the totality (the environment), the work and on “the other” (the team), even when the manager is feeling her/his own limitations.  It is not a knowing performance, it is a discovery.

Being playful is a wonderful tool for creating an environment of risk-taking.  The ability to make mistakes, fail and try again is essential to innovation and growth for individuals, teams and companies.  A dependable boss is the manager is constantly keeping an eye to the environment in which her/his people are working. The dependable boss fosters an environment of play.

Improvisation is a wonderful training ground for these skills.  The basic tool of improvisation is “yes and” – we embrace any “offers” that come our way and we build with them.  We listen intently and actively.  We trust our partner/s; we make our partner/s look good.  We don’t know where something is going; we embrace the process.  We are dependable!

If you are a manager or are developing as a manager I encourage you to perform in new ways that might surprise the people who report to you/work with you – make some discoveries and play!

Taking play seriously . . .

I’m a fan of Tony Schwartz’s posts on the HBR.  Schwartz is the CEO of The Energy Project and always has good things to say about how we work.  I’m also a big fan of “how” – the often neglected but critical aspect of all that we do.

In Four Destructive Myths Most Companies Still Live By Schwartz takes on four myths that are well worth busting up.  Given my procivities toward creativity and play I am interested in busting open Myth #3: Creativity is genetically inherited, and it’s impossible to teach.

In a global economy characterized by unprecedented competitiveness and constant change, nearly every CEO hungers for ways to drive more innovation. Unfortunately, most CEOs don’t think of themselves as creative, and they share with the rest of us a deeply ingrained belief that creativity is mostly inborn and magical.

Ironically, researchers have developed a surprising degree of consensus about the stages of creativity and how to approach them. Our educational system and most company cultures favor reward the rational, analytic, deductive left hemisphere thinking. We pay scant attention to intentionally cultivating the more visual, intuitive, big picture capacities of the right hemisphere.

As it turns out, the creative process moves back and forth between left and right hemisphere dominance. Creativity is actually about using the whole brain more flexibly. This process unfolds in a far more systematic — and teachable — way than we ordinarily imagine. People can quickly learn to access the hemisphere of the brain that serves them best at each stage of the creative process — and to generate truly original ideas.

I don’t want to quibble with the important things that Schwartz has to say. . . and I think there is more to give readers about our human capacity to create and how to develop that capacity.  Although it might involve “using the whole brain more flexibly” there are some easy-to-teach ways to develop our innate creative capacity.  Readers of this blog probably know what comes next . . .  yes and . . . improvisation is the way!

We are creative beings. As babies we acquired language through creative, improvisational imitation. Adults spoke to us before we “understood” language and we responded with our baby babblings and one day we became speakers.  That activity of being related to “a head taller” than we are continues to be how we grow and develop throughout our lives.  When we relate to each other as “creative” we get back in touch with our innate creativity.  Although there is no human being who is “not creative”, many of us think that about ourselves and need an environment and support to flex and develop our creative muscles.

As a teacher and coach I have found that playing improv games brings out the creative capacity of the group — whether we are passing around improvised balls of different weight, size and color, telling a collective story one word at a time, or creating “yes and” scenes between two people — we can create an environment to teach/remind people just how creative we all are.  Sadly in our culture we often lose touch with our playful selves in the service of “growing up” and becoming “serious”.

There is no doubt in my experience — play is the means by which we experience our wonderous capacity to create.

I also share Schwartz’s desire to bust up Myth #4: The best way to get more work done is to work longer hours:

. . . human beings are designed to pulse intermittently between spending and renewing energy. Great performers — and enlightened leaders — recognize that it’s not the number of hours people work that determines the value they create, but rather the energy they bring to whatever hours they work.

Rather than systematically burning down our reservoir of energy as the day wears on, as most of us do, intermittent renewal makes it possible to keep our energy steady all day long. Strategically alternating periods of intense focus with intermittent renewal, at least every 90 minutes, makes it possible to get more done, in less time, more sustainably.

“Intermittent renewal” … hmm what could be better than a play break at the office?

Imagine the level of innovation and creativity that could be produced if we took play seriously?!

Why not give it a try?

Yesterday I spent the day in Harlem at the All Stars Talent Show Workshop.  I was part of a grouping of adult and youth leaders of the All Stars who worked with 300 young people, most of whom were new to the program and who will participate in the upcoming Harlem All Stars Talent Shows. See previous post blog post for more details about the program

We worked with a diverse group of inner city youth of all ages from some of the poorest neighborhoods in New York — singers, rappers and dancers; boys and girls from elementary school and young men and women from high school.  I was one of the directors helping the young people create theatre skits about the All Stars’ youth programs (see photo below of me and three youth leaders and fellow skit directors).

After arriving with their performance groups, the young people were asked to join groups of kids they didn’t know to create the skits.  Although the initial response of some of the young people was to ask, “Why do I have to do this?” and “Why can’t I stay with my group?”, the activity of creating with people they never worked with before turned out to be a creative and developmental experience for all involved.  See video clip below of one of the very fun and creative skits the youth created.

I was thinking about this activity and it’s application to business.  Companies, large and small, can use this approach to bring diverse groups of executives and non-executives together and have them create new experiences (as well as new products and services), a great way to promote innovation in the workplace. The use of theatre and improvisation can help businesses go beyond the possible and the familiar so that everyone involved can develop.

Why not give it a try?

Applying improvisation

Yesterday I attended an all day workshop with the New York Chapter of the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN).  Not surprisingly I found myself surrounded with a generous, intellectually stimulating and playful group of professionals who apply improvisation in a number of settings – corporations, education and mental health.

Sue Waldron, of ImprovWorks! in the Bay Area gave a wonderful presentation on the breadth of the field – here are just some of the areas in which improvisation is being applied in the workplace:

Leadership, change management, sales, customer service, team building, community development, creativity and innovation, living the brand/brand management, corporate culture/transformational change, coaching, diversity, agility/resiliency, networking, facilitation skills, train the trainer (T3), burn out prevention, stress prevention, doctor/patient relations, substance abuse prevention.

One company that was mentioned that uses improvisation for collaboration in their corporate culture is Pixar – and what wonderful results they’ve had!  I did a quick Google search and found Pixar’s essential principles:

Accept any offer: when given a new idea try and work with it. Dismissing it causes the idea to be lost.

Make your partner look good: don’t extend work on the basis of making it better, think of it of adding value.

These are wonderful principles for any organization to embrace; they are basic building blocks of good improvisation and good theatrical collaboration.

Innovate and improvise

I had a fruitful and interesting breakfast meeting this morning with an executive leader in the field of Innovation. We were, in part, discussing my desire to innovate my career.  My experience of innovation requires going beyond myself and face the challenges of the unknown.  Whether we like it or not, most of us are resistant to change and it can impact us on a gut level.

In our discussion this morning we were talking about how executives in organizations resist innovation and change, often in a defensive manner.   Lucky for us we have a choice of how we want to respond when faced with change – we can become defensive, or we can joyously embrace change and “jump off the cliff” into the unknown. I keep reminding myself to do the latter when I feel the pull to resist change, change that I am creating for myself!

Shortly after my breakfast meeting I was reading an article, Four Reasons Any Action is Better Than None ( on my Twitter feed.

Of course, sitting still can be a good thing if it involves renewal, reflection, and focused attention (or having meals with the family). But sitting still can be a bad thing if it involves procrastination, indecision, and passivity. Companies heading downhill have passive cultures. Unmade decisions pile up. Opportunities are lost. No one wants to risk making a mistake. It becomes easier to sit it out than get into the game … In contrast, in companies with high levels of innovation, people take initiative. They start new things. They don’t wait to be told. They get routine work done efficiently in order to free up the time to get involved in something new.

Improvisers jump into the unknown and are rarely passive; indecision can kill an improv scene.  We take initiative, we start new things and create new things.  We build with change – the improv scene is a dynamic moment-to-moment activity of change.  Maybe this is why improvisation is such a helpful tool for creating innovative, collaborative environments.