Use Improv to Help You Lead Better

Improv to Help You Lead

Time to embrace “Yes, and…” thinking.

By Yvonne Milosevic

The familiar may bring comfort, but unfortunately, it often leads to complacency. Sure, heterogeneous work environments can experience the occasional friction. Yet the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks. Case in point: a 2019 study by McKinsey found that more ethnically and culturally diverse executive teams were 36% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. That’s why anyone looking to get ahead professionally should learn to welcome discomfort, says Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino. She has the ideal prescription for everybody trying to lead more inclusively. And the good news is, you might have fun doing it.

Last year, Gino taught a course on Inclusive Leadership for first-year HBS students with colleagues Frances Frei and Hise Gibson. For one class, they brought in performers from Second City, the Chicago-based improvisational theater company, to help hone the students’ leadership skills. Gino suggests adopting the following three philosophies from improv to help you lead better, too.

Improv to Help You Lead
Second City photo by Linda N. / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Lesson 1: Not knowing brings about learning.

“When others think like us or look like us, we are likely able to predict their moves and perspectives,” Gino explains. “But when they don’t, we need to be open to learning about them.” The number-one trait of improv is its unpredictability. She likens the experience to the strategies involved in playing ping pong versus chess.

Rather than looking down the road to see what’s next—a la chess—ping pong requires split-second reaction times. Performers have no idea where their partner will go next with the scene. Thus, they must stay flexible and on their toes to advance their mutual goal.

Lesson 2: Reserving judgment opens us up to curiosity.

The number-one rule of the improv experience is that you always build on what the previous performer has said. This is otherwise known as the “yes, and…” principle. No matter how you feel about their contribution, your job is to add to the scene—not shut it down. After all, bad ideas are just bridges to those good ideas waiting in the wings.

“Improv comedy teaches us to keep an open mind, understanding that communication drives insight and that closed conversations generally fail,” Gino notes. “Dissent is welcome, but only when there is shared respect, and everyone feels they are on the same team.”

Lesson 3: Supporting each other makes the impossible possible.

Gino says that trusting one’s inner voice and having the unconditional support of scene partners create the foundation of improv. “It’s so much easier to work with others (…) to shape the future—of a scene, a decision, or a collaboration—when we start from a place of trust, knowing that, whatever happens, others will give us their support,” she explains.

You can use all three of these lessons from improv to help you lead better and more inclusively. In improv, as in life, it’s all about how we work with others, how we notice other people’s feelings, and—if we’re lucky—how we learn to stay in the moment. “These principles may sound intuitive,” Gino adds, “but they can be difficult when working across differences.”


Huzzah! You made it to the end of this post! While you’re here, check out a different take on improv, diversity, and creativity in Why the Best Teams Love Burstiness.