Improve Employee Performance with Improv


November 19, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

My friend Cindy Ventrice is doing some fascinating work using improvisational theater techniques to help leaders do a better job of providing recognition to their employees. I invited Cindy to discuss the correlations between improv and the principles of recognition, which she outlines in her book Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:
Before we get into using improv to help leaders provide recognition, can you briefly describe what recognition is and what makes it so important?First, recognition is more than plaques and service awards. It is about being visible. Employees want to be visible to managers. They want their managers to be aware of them. I had one employee tell me he would be happy if his boss even knew he existed. Another said she was most productive when she had the cubicle outside of her manager’s office, not because she was intimidated, but because she felt visible. Others have described leaders who know their strengths and interests as proof that they are visible.Second, employees want to know that their contributions are valued. This is demonstrated through praise and appreciation. It is also demonstrated by the opportunities their leaders provide them: being given a chance to take on new challenges, offer their opinions, and learn something new.Finally, what makes recognition so important is that it creates a more motivated workforce by establishing the meaningful relationships that employees need and want.

What led you to use improv to teach managers the practice of employee recognition?

Two words: behavior change. Traditional workshops provide knowledge, but knowing isn’t doing. Leaders often find it easy to conceptualize what good recognition looks like, but they have a lot more difficulty internalizing the concepts and building them into habits that they practice in the workplace. During improv, leaders act out their ideas and then self-assess strengths and bad habits they may have with regard to giving recognition. In this way, improv provides leaders an opportunity to practice key skills so that they come more naturally in the workplace. It doesn’t hurt that it is fun too!

What recognition skills does improv develop?

Learning improv improves presentation skills. The more comfortable leaders are on stage, providing clear and concise information, and creating an integrated message using both words and body language, the more effective they will be at delivering recognition.

Improved presentation skills are just the beginning. There are more elusive and more critical recognition skills that improv teaches masterfully.

Can you tell me what they are?

Improv enhances our ability to listen. In a survey I completed last year, employees told me that the skill they most valued in their leaders was the ability to listen. In improv, you learn full-attention listening. You hear the words and pick up on the more subtle cues that body language offers. With practice you can develop tremendous focus.

Related to listening is the ability of leaders to demonstrate that they value the opinions of others. As you discuss in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There so often leaders want to add value or demonstrate their skill or knowledge. These bad habits devalue employees. With improv the tendency to add value reveals itself very quickly. Leaders learn how to accept offers fully.
Improv strengthens our capacity to trust. Over 50% of the examples employees have provided of meaningful recognition include new opportunities. To provide meaningful opportunities, leaders need to trust the intention and capability of employees. To improvise you have to be willing to step back and accept the lead of others. You need to trust that they will support you while you focus on supporting them. Any difficulties a leader has with trust will quickly become apparent!

How do you use improv when working with leaders?

At one end of the spectrum, as part of a more traditional leadership workshop, I will use the exercises to raise awareness. For example, a game called Mantra Walking demonstrates the effect our thoughts have on our body language and approachability. It’s quick, non-threatening, and drives home a very important point.

At the other end of the spectrum, I will work with the director of my improv troupe, Alexander Lamb, to create a full-day improv workshop to immerse leaders in the improv experience and make lasting improvements to their capacity to recognize effectively. With this type of experience, we move from simple warm-ups to games such as “Yes, And” that teach us to accept offers and use a more positive approach.

One thing I really like about improv as a learning tool is that it works equally well with CEOs and team leaders–whether from human resources, informations technology, or research and development. We have yet to find a group that doesn’t respond well to using improv techniques to better recognize their employees.

Readers: You can contact Cindy at Any of your reflections on how to provide –or not provide–recognition will be appreciated!