Sometimes you find yourself in a particularly challenging work situation. The challenge can come from any number of directions: you’re assigned to a project that has fallen behind schedule and your team is demoralized; you have a particularly difficult boss; your organization is getting downsized and you get assigned the task of identifying who stays and who goes. Sometimes work is just a dumpster fire.
The question is: how does improv help when your eyes are tearing up from the smoke?
This has been on my mind a lot recently, as I have found myself in such an environment. So much of the literature on improv in the workplace focuses on using improv to make good environments better.
There’s not a lot of discussion about how to use improv to help when things are coming apart.
While many of the techniques I’ve discussed are relevant anytime (e.g., saying yes, being present, celebrating mistakes), their application can be tricky when confronted by so many obstacles to success. In my own situation, I’ve struggled (and mostly failed) to create the kind of value of which I know I’m capable and which my client deserves. What then?
For me, the most important improv skill is learning to let go.
We deal with it indirectly in improv training—keeping things fun, reducing perceived risk, focusing on the positive—but we need to engage with “Letting Go” directly in order to bring our best improv skills to the corporate world.
To me, “Letting Go” means accepting that your individual contribution (to a scene, project, relationship, etc.) is the one and only gift you could have given in the moment.
It’s not an invitation to slackertude; rather, it’s having the ability to learn and move forward from your decisions and actions without wallowing in regret, worry, anger, self-pity, etc.
You see this play out onstage and in improv classes all the time.
Improvisors who refuse to let go after a difficult scene or exercise have a negative effect on themselves and on group dynamics.
They blame themselves or their peers for their perceived lack of success, and make it challenging for anyone to enjoy being around them.
My experience is that many of these developing improvisors will choose to step away from improv instead of allowing themselves to accept that their contribution is enough for the moment.
And letting go doesn’t get much easier than on an improv stage. A highly respected source (yours truly) estimates that over a lifetime at least half of an improvisor’s scenes are going to be cringe-worthy. For me personally, the number is probably more like 90%. But I digress; the point is that if you’re looking at the result in terms of “what I did wrong” (aka Hanging On) versus “what could I do better” (Letting Go), you’re going to be an unhappy improvisor.
When you add risking your livelihood or well-being to the situation, Hanging On becomes the natural reaction for most of humanity. We want to beat ourselves up when a project fails; or an analysis didn’t produce the desired results; or you discover that you and your life partner have drifted apart. Sprinkle a little toxicity into the mix, and Letting Go gets even harder. We find ourselves clinging for dear life to a fraying rope when the ground is right beneath our feet.
Believe me, this is a tough one to learn.
Before I figured it out in improv, I was eating a lot of shameburgers on the long drive home.
It’s a skill I’m still developing in my professional life. When work is motoring along on an even keel, Letting Go has become an intuitive part of my practice. But when work is indeed a dumpster fire, and that blaze has been going for months / years, it’s easy to forget that your individual contribution is the only gift you could have given in the moment.
Only with the mindful objectivity of Letting Go are we able to stop blaming and reliably assess “what could I do better.”
Sometimes you’ll find answers that enable you to engage more effectively in the next moment. Or, you may discover that the answer is to find a more supportive, less toxic work environment. Regardless, Letting Go creates the conditions for positive change to occur.
Live - Laugh - Love.
As Martin deMaat said, “You are pure potential.”
Steven Beauchem is a strategist and consultant helping clients to excel in the digital world. He studies and performs improv in Chicago and San Francisco, and is passionate about leveraging the ideas, energy and techniques of improv to drive innovation and cultural change in the corporate world. In his spare time, he is a board member at Stage 773, home of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, and is also developing a new improv performance series (expected to launch in Chicago in spring 2017). Steven's writings here are his own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employers or clients.
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