Can We Talk about Small Talk?
Macmillan Dictionary Blog

Has the art of conversation slipped away from us? The Chief Data Officer of a fintech company wants her data scientists to do a better job of telling the story behind the data. A Customer Service leader wants to develop more empathy within his team. A client shares her concern that her teenage children spend much of their time in “head-down” conversation (i.e., texting) and less time in face-to-face interactions.

While many executives excel in interpersonal communication, it is still the case that others struggle with the soft skills – networking, building relationships and collaborating with others. It turns out that small talk is a big deal. 

“Jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force between 1980 and 2012, according to a study published last year by David Deming, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. Less-social, math-intensive jobs fell by 3.3 percentage points over the same period.” (Wall Street Journal, Wanted: Employees Who Can Shake Hands, Make Small Talk; Bank of America teaches empathy in-house; Subaru pays for soft-skills training, December 9, 2018)

It’s no wonder that heads of learning and development, at companies large and small, have turned to performance, bringing in playful and improvisational approaches to advancing communication skills, emotional intelligence/empathy, and collaboration. The essential elements of improvisation – listening and building – have become critical skills for professionals at all levels. Storytelling, performing other than who we are, and creative imitation are some of the tools from the theatre that are so valuable in corporate settings.

ImprovNetworking was designed as a professional and leadership development program to teach new ways of making small talk that are relaxed, natural, and effective. Participants don’t rely on a scripted process (the elevator pitch), instead we rely on our innate human ability to play and perform. Learning to actively listen and build with what people offer strengthens the ability to develop new social connections and deepen existing relationships. Discover what ImprovNetworking can do for your organization. 

Improv Networking
An innovative and off-script approach to networking and relationship building for professionals at all levels, customizable to meet the needs of your organization.


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.

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

It might seem counter-intuitive but my experience as an executive search consultant and coach is that the role of interviewer can be more challenging than being interviewed.  While job seekers rehearse (prepare) for interviews, interviewers are often busy executives who have been asked to interview candidates along with the many other responsibilities that all too often take priority, absorbing most of their attention.

Unfortunately, many of us have been in the “bad interview” play from one side or the other – the interviewee arrives at the interviewers office and that busy executive that is conducting the interview is winging it.  S/he is distracted.  Perhaps running late.  Whirling around in the interviewer’s head are things like: “Did I see a resume on this person?  What job is she/he interviewing for?  I don’t have time for this.  I’ve interviewed so many people this week I can’t get my work done.  What core competencies am I supposed to be interviewing for, anyway?”  Meanwhile, the interviewee wonders why s/he is not being asked thoughtful questions.  When recruiters debrief candidates about an interview it is not unusual to hear, “The interviewer did all the talking.”

There’s a lot to do in an interview – assess skill level, cultural fit, leadership and emotional intelligence to name a few.  And there is often a need to sell a talented candidate on the job and the company.  The hiring manager has a responsibility to organize her/his team to appreciate that talent acquisition is critical part of their job, to create an environment where the candidate feels respected and valued, and to clarify what each interviewer is looking for in her/his interview.  While one person might be interviewing for cultural fit, another might be digging into the candidate’s skill set.

Now, I’m all for improvising (vs. rehearsing and learning lines) but it’s good to remember that a well trained improviser is always making her/his partner look good.  We are very keyed into “the other.”  We are active listeners.  

Above all else I think the job of any interviewer is to create a conversation.  A performance for the interviewer might be to lead and enjoy the activity of creating conversation.  Be in the present and be present as an active listener.  Be thoughtful.  Go slowly.  Let the conversation unfold.  Follow your curiosity.  What does it take to get to know the person?  Take a risk.  Go somewhere together.  Allow space for their questions and be as honest and direct as possible in answering.

A great resource for interviewers is Adam Bryant’s weekly column in The New York Times – The Corner Office – http://projects.nytimes.com/corner-office/interviews/oldest/sort Bryant does a great job of interviewing hiring managers about how they interview and usually asks his subject’s for their favorite questions.

Have a great show!

Creating the environment for a happier workplace

On June 30th I will be leaving my position of 15 years as a retained executive search consultant to begin a new career as a freelance professional in the field of recruiting, training and coaching.  Since I’ve started this blog I’ve read many articles and postings about the workplace, productivity, innovation and other areas of study under the umbrella of human capital issues.  All of this is very much on my mind.

With this direction for my own career I am thinking more and more about what it takes for people to have a better experience in the recruiting and onboarding process; I am concerned that people I place have a good experience at their new company in their new role.  And the same goes for hiring managers and human resource professionals – how can everyone involved have a better experience?  I’ve seen how organizations value or under value talent acquisition and whether or not there is a commitment to the process and activity of recruiting and developing talent.

Although I wholeheartedly agree with the “tips” below for having a “happier” life I would add that it takes time and energy to create an environment for people to have a more joyful experience at work vs. individuals trying to make work a better place for themselves.  Managers have to grow in new ways.  They have to develop and take risks and try some new things (like creating the space for employees to take breaks for exercise, breathing, laughter, play, improvisation … whatever is relaxing).  An overly critical manager who rarely gives praise to his/her team and expects them to work without a break, without thought for what the office environment is like, will need to develop beyond the role/performance of manager that she/he knows (behavior) and create a new performance.  That is where development resides – in the new performance (vs. behavior).

I am a developmentalist.  I’ve spent many years as a builder of a broad based and performance-oriented movement for human development and social change.  I bring this perspective and activity to my work as a recruiter, coach and trainer.  In the same way that development is often not present in discussions about education, it is no where in the discussions about the workplace.

Hopefully we will soon see articles on the Harvard Business Review’s site about developmental approaches to a more productive workforce but in the meantime enjoy these helpful (albeit individualistic) ways to make the workday more joyful – I’m all for that!

The Happiness Dividend by Shawn Achor (HBR):

  • Write down three new things you are grateful for each day;
  • Write for 2 minutes a day describing one positive experience you had over the past 24 hours;
  • Exercise for 10 minutes a day;
  • Meditate for 2 minutes, focusing on your breath going in and out;
  • Write one, quick email first thing in the morning thanking or praising a member on your team.

Gratitude, focusing on positive experiences, exercise, meditating, and random acts of kindness are all ways to change the pattern through which your brain views work.

Praise the people!

Here’s an interesting question: Why Does Criticism Seem More Effective than Praise? 

Sadly most of us think criticism yields better performance. That’s never made much sense to me.

In the theatre – whether I’m in a play or performing improv – too much criticism can be stifling and creates self consciousness that inhibits creativity, and I’d add that it stifles productivity.  Its demoralizing.

Actors know that often a great performance is followed by an average performance.  At work we can perform at the top of our game one day, or when we are engaged in a particular task, and less so at other times.

It’s so easy for us to forget that we are only human (we are not Watson!).  We criticize (and judge) people; we all do it (too) many times a day.  Sometimes we don’t even realize or mean to be critical, but we are.

If we perform in new ways and focus on the positive, if we give praise, give positive feedback, if we give – we might just find more joy in our workday and every day.

Give praise to the people!

Perform Leadership

What a great Management Tip from Harvard Business Review – Become A Leader Before Others See You As One! http://tinyurl.com/3psu462 Here’s a valuable quote:

Experience and legitimacy are helpful, but they are not prerequisites to leadership. Take a look at the informal power you have — gained through your network, your ability to influence, or your passion — and begin using it now to make change in your organization.

One’s passion is a powerful tool that is often unrecognized by others and under-utilized in the workplace. This makes me think of performance – I think we have to perform leadership.

We under-utilize this human capability to be who we are not and to perform “a head taller” than we are in the workplace (and elsewhere)*. If we perform as a leader, regardless of how we feel or tend to behave we can and will become leaders.

Is there a need to create the environment and conditions for that to happen? Absolutely! I imagine that collaborative, non-hierarchical environments will foster more opportunities for the performance of leadership to occur.

* For more on the methodology surrounding performance in the workplace see my colleague Lois Holzman’s book “Vygotsky at Work and Play” http://loisholzman.org/vygotsky-at-work-and-play/about-the-book/