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Q & A with Karen Hough: What leaders can learn from improvisational troupes

3 min read


Karen Hough is author of “The Improvisation Edge: Secrets to Building Trust and Radical Collaboration at Workplace.” Previously, her acting training at venues such as Second City in Chicago helped her build a successful career as a sales executive.  Smartbrief interviewed Hough about how improvisation can improve trust and performance in the workplace. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

When did you realize the usefulness of improvisation tactics in the workplace?

As soon as I started engaging in business at a higher level, I started making connections to improvisation. A turning point came over 12 years ago. One of my friends was getting her MBA at Wharton; she wrote a paper, which I helped edit, about how improvisational skills are used in the business world. Her professor said, “Gee, this is a really great idea.”

From there, we decided we wanted to get very academic about examining the link between improvisation and business. By the time I started ImprovEdge, I already had clients lined up from research and test work that we had done.

What are some symptoms of a lack of trust within a group?

The biggest thing is that time is wasted. When you don’t trust the people you work with, you have to keep checking things and asking for other sources and redoing work. That redundancy wouldn’t happen if there were trust. The second thing is stress. No matter what, there is going to be work that you need to hand off to other people. If you don’t trust the people you work with, you’ll have to constantly worry about how things are getting done.

Improvisation seems like it’s at odds with careful planning and execution. Does this make managers hesitant to embrace improvisation?

Absolutely. We terrify people at first, as a matter of fact. Skeptics are my favorite people to win over, though. What a lot of people don’t realize is that improvisers are some of the most over-rehearsed performers — there are all sorts of formats and guides that they learn to use. The more you practice dealing with uncertainty, the better you become at dealing with it. Eventually managers see that uncertainty isn’t something that you need to be afraid of — it’s actually something you can embrace.

What are some simple things that leaders can do to foster the positivity needed for improvisation?

Leaders should be thoughtful about their body language. That means nodding while someone is speaking to them and make sure their arms aren’t crossed. Sometimes, leaders forget how much they influence the people that work under them. Also, they should let other people lead from time to time. This could mean letting someone who doesn’t get to talk much present part of an agenda during a meeting. If they succeed, it can be a confidence builder; if they fail, it can be a learning experience.