In improv it is a common ritual for team members to tap each other gently on the back and say the words “got your back” to each other before going on stage. It is a reminder that we are not alone. Improv is a team activity. I think that is why improv-inspired training has become more common. When I first started this journey, people didn’t understand how comedy could help their teams. These days, I hear more and more about the effectiveness of improv-based training.
When I think about the best team I have worked on, we always had fun together and respected each other. I remember as a young project manager supporting a team developing a product. Part of the reason people hire project managers is to keep focus and deliver a result. I would go in with my timed agenda and attempt to keep to a schedule. I have never seen a group of adults behave so silly in my life, but at the end of the meeting we had always accomplished our objectives. It was a bit frustrating at the first, but as I look back, the team felt comfortable laughing together and being themselves. They respected everyone and each person’s superpowers and flaws. They had each other’s back and took responsibility as a team for both wins and losses. Without knowing it we always applied the “yes, and” improv concept of accepting each person’s viewpoint as their reality and building upon it. This team organically developed that culture, but sometimes, we need to invest time and money into our teams to create unique experiences that will be memorable and build the team.
Spending time as a team in any form is beneficial. When people get to know each other as human beings, I found it increases their understanding and ultimately helps them to perform better together. Happy hours and team lunches are great, but the conversation generally stays to basic family information, hobbies and then the conversation inevitably returns to shop talk. I have always been a big fan of hands on team building activities. The events I remember as being most beneficial include ropes courses, escape rooms and, of course, improv. I like these types of events because as a group, individuals stretch themselves and get to know each other. In becoming uncomfortable we also need to become a little bit vulnerable and trust each other. Sometimes we need to literally trust that someone has our back. The rewards often include genuine laughter and “remember when” moments to bond the team over a shared experience. As an added bonus, hands-on activities generally develop executive or “soft” skills like communication, leadership and critical thinking.
Managers can also improve their relationships with their team by applying the “yes, and” and you’re your back” concepts to their interactions. Many of us have experience with managers who say they are willing to listen, but when presented with an idea or suggestion the first word out of their mouth is “no” or “that’s not possible.” Not only does this stifle innovation, but it can also demoralize a team into a feeling of “why bother” or even the loss of talent. People understand there are limitations in running an organization, most just want their voice to be genuinely heard and feel like part of a team instead of just a human resource. We benefit in our personal lives from this same concept. How many times do people say “you shouldn’t feel that way?” or discount a person’s point of view. Before pushing our thoughts, we can benefit from taking the time to understand a person’s reality and work together to find a common ground.
Improv exercises are great ways to build teams, but not the only way. Team building takes intentional development that I believe is best done in hands-on activities. These can be simple activities as part of standing meetings or a facilitated program. The key question I leave you with today is do you have your team’s back? Do they have yours? If the answer is no, what will you do to change that this year?