Happiness is a choice.
– Tito Beveridge
This week I came across an awesome article in the Wall Street Journal talking about how improv classes can help you run a more effective business meeting (paywall).
It threw me back to that time at Booth when, the first week of school, we went on a Leadership Orientation Retreat (LOR) and were thrown into an improv class. I’m not going to lie. It was certainly awkward. Thankfully for all of the class’s participants I don’t actually remember what we improv’ed. But the experience left me with the one critical lesson that improv teaches:
I find myself often in meetings where we are discussing a new proposal for some solution, service, etc. and we come to the meat of it. The conversation goes like this:
Participant 1: I was thinking that we might lay out A on top of B and embed that in C. Doing so would probably be the best solution.
Me: Well, the probably with embedding A on B in C is…
And I start to go on and on about some little nit that is kind of an issue, but if I’m being honest with myself not really a major issue at all. And frankly, although I will admit to my mistakes, I am not the only one. How often have you found yourself in a situation like this where coworkers are shooting down a perfectly good idea for reasons that are esoteric and seemingly unimportant?
For the longest time, I thought that this was probably because it was easy. How hard is it to find just one thing wrong with any proposal? We get in our two cents, are “right”, and are able to have massive influence (a supposed “veto”) without having done much effort.
Some other people have proposed to me that it’s really a form of insurance. People are incredibly resistant to change, and perhaps our natural state is a “Default No”. It protected us in predator times against all of the things that were typically “change = bad”.
However, I heard a great explanation from one of my co-workers the other day: negativity as a bonding mechanism. He’s not the first one to propose this. Over a decade ago, researchers from University of Oklahoma and UT Austin proposed that negativity serves as a better mechanism for bonding than positivity. Specifically, the authors posited that
…sharing negative attitudes is alluring because it establishes in-group/out-group boundaries, boosts self-esteem, and conveys highly diagnostic information about attitude holders.
Which brings me to the improv wisdom:
It’s so simple, and yet so effective. By not allowing yourself to begin with a “Default No”, the entire tenor of your suggestion becomes positive and constructive. This has the benefit of allowing the entire team to feel supported. I’m not the best at this. But I am actively trying. The article in the journal reminded me of just how effective this technique can be, and highly recommend it for anyone looking for team wins.