Before becoming the director of Learning and Development at CustomInk — an online custom apparel retailer headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia, with about 2,000 employees working in a hybrid environment — Jordana Cole learned and developed her own passion for improvisational comedy. After all, she contends that the two fields have a lot of overlap. She even wrote her thesis about it, to earn her Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania: “Utilizing Improv as a Tool to Enhance Workplace Relationships.”
“What are the underpinnings of [improv] that make it such an effective tool?” says Cole. “It really is about things like being present, creating psychological safety, co-creating with others, taking others’ perspectives, and building on others’ good ideas.”
Read on for an edited excerpt of our exclusive interview with Cole about how improv exercises can help your workforce develop leadership skills.
Senior Executive Media: I noticed you posted on LinkedIn at one point how you use your improv experience… How do you apply that personal passion of yours to Learning and Development?
Cole: I bring improv exercises into Leadership Development all the time. Some of my favorite exercises teach people how to be good active listeners. So I’ll bring in actual improv games that teach the skills of active listening. I’m able to do that virtually or in person. I don’t tell them, ‘We’re doing improv now!’ I say, ‘We’re gonna do an activity…’
One of the core tenets of improv is ‘yes, and’ instead of ‘yes, but.’ I think a lot of times as leaders, even though we mean well, especially in ideation sessions, somebody gives us an idea, and we immediately go, ‘Yeah, but dot, dot, dot.’ And it just kills the energy and the momentum and the innovation.
Just introducing that concept to people, I’ll do a fun exercise where I’ll say, ‘Okay, give me a suggestion of something unrealistic that will never happen…’ And I’ll take four volunteers — again, in person or remote — and say, ‘I’m gonna tell you this thing. Now, I want you to say, ‘yes,’ and build on it.’ And then we go through it and I say, ‘ok, I’m gonna tell you the same thing again. And this time, I want you to ‘Yes, but…’
And I asked the rest of the group to share, what did that do to that energy? What did you notice? Inevitably, we have a great conversation about how that feels like it sucks the energy out. And we talk about, how often do we do that as leaders? And how can we change our approach to when we’re asking for ideas to encourage more of that ‘yes, and’ thinking?
You know, improv is all about fail fast and learn from it. So even in organizations that are more agile-focused, it’s a great thing to intertwine with agility or design-thinking even, concepts of growth mindset… I actually did a free workshop through my alumni association around strategies to thrive that you can learn from improv about being present, focusing on the moment, taking others’ perspectives, celebrating failures, those sorts of things. I see intersections with it everywhere.
And it’s fun. Even people who are scared about improv kind of get into it. I have done big improv team-building events… Usually, there’s people who are a little skeptical…but we’re all improvising all the time. Who is walking around with a script inside of their heads? Improv isn’t about being funny. It’s just about being present. And it’s really about co-creation. And I think, especially in very collaborative team environments, it’s such a core skill.