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Reducing work stress with applied improvisation

Leaders can improve innovation by using Applied Improvisation to help their team get more creative, writes Theodore Klein.

7 min read


applied improvisation

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It’s called a silent killer for a reason.  Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business have concluded that 120,000 Americans die each year from work-related stress.  Professional staff are increasingly feeling overwhelmed, with OSHA reporting that not only do 83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress, but 54% of workers find that it impacts their home life, as well.  This mental tension increases aggression and reduces the quality of sleep, leading to a myriad of cardiovascular conditions and psychological disorders.

Theodore Klein

Critically, it’s also a killer of workplace productivity, with reduced efficiency leading to inferior work quality and diminished results.  Simply reducing the stress that professional staff feel can bring immediate benefits to organizations. Applied Improvisation (AIM) has emerged as a critical way to achieve those positive results.  Like how a symphony orchestra practices cues and tempo to achieve synchronization, AIM provides a way for professional staff to build trust, engage with one another, work together and grow more confident in their group abilities to overcome challenges and reduce the fear of difficult situations.

What Is Applied Improvisation?

Applied improvisation (AIM) is a group or team-based activity that raises self-awareness, builds interpersonal connections and enables individuals to enhance their management competencies.  Research shows that improvisation training enhances collaboration, communications, innovation, team-building, emotional awareness, and, most importantly, leadership skills.  Improvisation dates back thousands of years, with humans using improvised stories to entertain one another even before the first written language.  Until the mid-20th century, improvisation was just that, an art form used exclusively in theatrical settings to amuse and delight.  This all changed with Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin, who laid the groundwork for AIM by adapting theatrical elements like teamwork and collaboration to improve leadership abilities.  The experiential learning method has left its comedic roots in the past. It can now elevate today’s leaders into effective collaborators and communicators ready to face business volatility and ambiguity head-on.

Applied Improvisation enhances psychological safety

Trust is a crucial component of psychological safety, a state of mind where an individual feels comfortable speaking up. In a psychologically safe work environment, professional staff feel at ease taking risks, raising objections when necessary and accepting fault when mistakes occur. Management and experienced staff create such an environment when they trust themselves and extend that belief to their coworkers. Psychologically unsafe workplaces are uncomfortable, stifle innovation and impact an organization’s ability to remain competitive.

Establishing trust is one of the pillars of AIM.  “Improvisation training cultivates a specific skill set of tolerating mistakes, listening skills, spontaneity, presence, performance confidence and collaboration skills,” concluded researchers studying the effects of improvisation at the University of Helsinki.  This skill set naturally helps people relax and reflect, essentially providing the foundation of a psychologically safe zone that reduces emotional and physical tension.

AIM creates a safe space where ideas and trust can flourish by empowering participants to speak up and think creatively.  It’s a worthy cause for all involved, as trust leads to a 260% increase in motivation at work and a 41% decrease in absenteeism.

In fact, according to research posted by Kristin Krueger, Jonathan Murphy, and Andrea Bink in the Journal of Mental Health, AIM’s exercises are directly linked to overall improved mental health.  “The results of this study indicate that a brief intervention based on improv exercises may provide a strong and efficient treatment for patients with anxiety and depression.”

Applied Improvisation in practice

The scientific principles behind AIM are on full display during an AIM program, typically presented by a firm during a well-planned event.  Programs are assembled based on a clear business objective and consist of focused activities and well-thought-through debriefs overseen by an experienced facilitator.  They are flexible in length, complexity and depth. They can range from one-hour introductory programs to comprehensive classes over several weeks or months to reinforce changed staff, management and executive behaviors.

One example of an AIM exercise involves a facilitator asking participants to divide into groups of four and tasking them to solve an absurd problem.  The participants take turns brainstorming ideas and solutions, with the twist being that everyone must agree with the previous ideas and incorporate them into their own.  The answer is fine-tuned and added upon until a resolution emerges that prominently features the input of all participants.  Participants learn to hone their listening, cooperation and communication skills, building trust, engagement and productivity.  In a business setting, increased productivity can quicken or boost the achievement of objectives or profitability, the ultimate goal of any endeavor.

While the action occurs during this exercise, the learning occurs in the following debriefing session.  The facilitator explains how the activity forced participants to think on their feet, plunging into a chaotic situation where the option of failure was nonexistent.  Furthermore, the activity showcases the importance of active listening, creativity and collaboration on a common goal.  In saying “yes” and dropping any trace of defensiveness, participants can trust themselves and share that trust with their peers.

Applied Improvisation as a stress reliever

Activities like the one outlined above enhance professional competencies like communication and leadership while simultaneously teaching methods for actively reducing stress levels.  Through AIM, professional staff learn how to become more comfortable with themselves and each other, granting them access to a safe space to identify behavioral flaws and address them without fear of reprisal.

A 2020 study that sought to measure whether a seven-week improv course would reduce social stress found that, by the end, participants were “more relaxed and less stressed as they waited to perform in front of an audience spontaneously. They also found that participants in the intervention group who started the study with low interpersonal confidence self-reported being less stressed during the [Trier Social Stress Test] task. Participants with low interpersonal confidence showed the most significant reduction in stress levels, which was in line with the researchers’ hypothesis, and they attribute this finding to improv’s emphasis on accepting mistakes.”

The safe space created by AIM helps humanize management to the professional staff they manage, making them more approachable and reducing workplace friction.  For management and their organizations, the reduced stress levels pay dividends when it comes to increased efficiency, productivity, and the health of their professional staff.

Mary Lemmer, the founder of Improve, states that “Improvising has ingrained in me the ability to say “yes,” acknowledge the reality of a situation, “and” then do whatever it is I need to do because of it. Just like there’s no denying in improv, I’ve adopted not denying the reality of my life. This equips me to be a more creative problem solver and adapt to changing circumstances.”

Workplace stress is not inevitable; overcoming it takes just a little trust.


Theodore Klein is Boston Strategy Group’s Managing Partner (BSG) Program Director at EI Research. He has over 40 years of executive management experience at several premier professional service firms and universities. Klein was the CEO of Boston Systems Group, named one of America’s 100 leading consulting firms.   He has led over 350 engagements for global corporate, healthcare, university and government institutions across four continents.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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