Improvisational comedy has gone mainstream, thanks to pros like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari, and to movies like Don't Think Twice.
The same principles that make someone a good improv comedian can also be applied to your professional life, where they can actually help you succeed. Companies like Ford, Google, Cisco, American Express, Hilton, Kaiser Permanente and Deloitte, and universities like Harvard, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania, have all embraced improv comedy as a tool to build strong teams.
I have been doing some form of improv since I was 13, and have coached, practiced, and performed improv for most of my adult life. The skills I have learned may not have turned me into a comedy legend, but they have made me a better employee. Here are three improv rules that helped me in my professional career and can help you too.
1. "Yes, and …"
The principle: It isn't fun to watch people disagree on stage. The word "No" is a slammed door: It stops the action and can frustrate both other performers and the audience.
Improv coaches everywhere preach that, instead of "No," you should try to say "Yes, and …" That means that you listen to the ideas of your partner, agree with at least some of their premise, and then contribute your own thoughts.
For instance, if your scene partner says, "Hey sis, Mom says we need to clean the house," you don't say, "I'm not your sister. We are strangers at the beach!" That would brings your scene to a halt. Instead, you say, "Great, sis, I'll get the mop."
This is not to say that you should accept every idea, no matter how outlandish, but the principle of "Yes, and …" helps performers find common ground so that they can go on to discover funny things together.
How you can apply it to get ahead at work: Bosses generally don't like to hear the word "No" any more than audiences or fellow comedians do. "Shark Tank" investor Barbara Corcoran lists "lots of enthusiasm" as one of the traits she values most in an employee, even more than the right resume, and science has shown that appearing positive and likable will help get you hired.
If your boss asks, "Can you get me the quarterly report?" and she's mistaken, don't say, "No, that's not the report you want." Instead, say, "Yes, and I'll also bring our notes from the quarterly meeting. That might be helpful, too."
Colleagues also appreciate when you treat their ideas with respect, even if you have other, competing suggestions. If a colleague says, "I think we should market our product using cartoon," and you disagree, instead of arguing, you could say, "Yes, and we could also test an animated campaign against a traditional print one."
By showing you value other ideas, you can help build your team's forward momentum. Affirming other people can go a long way both onstage and in the workplace.
2. Support your teammates
The principle: Some improvisers try to make themselves look good by making others look bad.This is both mean and only funny for so long. Improv is much more successful and sustainable when everyone on your team is hilarious.
How you can apply it to get ahead at work: If you oversee a team, give them the tools they need to succeed. Their victory will be yours, too.
The ability to develop talent is always in high demand. Showing off your team's success will demonstrate that you are a leader deserving of more management opportunities.
Also, when team members are confident and productive, you won't have to micromanage and will have more time to accomplish your own goals.
And when your teammates and subordinates are doing well, they can support you in return when you need help. If you undercut everyone around you, you won't have anyone to turn to in an emergency.
3. Show. Don't tell.
The principle: In comedy, it's more fun to see performers act out something unexpected than to hear them talk about it. Banter can only get you so far. It was great watching characters chat on NBC's "Seinfeld" or "Friends," but what brought those shows to life was not discussion but action: Seeing what Kramer or Joey would do, and what would happen next.
How you can apply it to get ahead at work: Showing what you can do instead of simply talking about it can bring your career to life, too. In the workplace, no one will be impressed if you just claim you'll tackle a project: You have to deliver.
Following through will show your colleagues and superiors that you're the kind of dependable, driven person who gets things done.
You can also use this rule to hold yourself accountable. If you talk to your friends, family, or colleagues about getting something done, use your word as a way to motivate yourself. Have you pledged at holiday parties for several years in a row that you're going to start your own business? This rule can remind you that maybe it's finally time to make it happen.