Why unleashing your creative and performative sides can make you a more receptive and innovative leader.

Think back to the very first time you rode a two-wheeled bicycle without any training wheels. You had no idea how to ride it! Perhaps you’d seen plenty of people riding bikes around you, and you probably had a parent or sibling who was a more experienced bike rider there to help you. But to really learn for yourself how to ride that bike, you had to pretend that you already knew. By pretending — by performing as a cyclist — you became a cyclist.

For most of us, that first cycling performance happened in childhood, and indeed, a lot of childhood learning takes place the same way — through the pretending and performing that made up so much of our play as kids. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky stressed the social, playful and performative nature of children’s development and learning. Vygotsky’s discoveries are fundamental to the growing field of performative psychology, which has extended the relevance of his work into adulthood.

And adulthood is where it gets really interesting. Because we’re not done with play, pretending and performing once we leave childhood. As adults — in the workplace and elsewhere — when we’re asked to do something we’ve never done before, when we need to grow beyond our current capabilities, we can tap into what we naturally did as children, and perform our way to who we’re becoming.

For adults, though, play, performance and pretending can feel anything but natural. We got the message in myriad ways as we left toddlerhood: play is for children, not for big people. Grown-ups are supposed to colour inside the lines; know the correct answer; understand how to behave and fit in. Without realizing it, we’ve gotten ourselves in a non-developmental box where there’s not much room for new learning, growth, or experimentation.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Performative psychology teaches us that there’s a way out of that box. As adults we can grow and develop, just like we did when we were small, by using performance and play to be who we are AND who we are becoming, at the same time.

The Becoming Principle comprises Five Fundamentals of Performance. These fundamentals and a few introductory exercises will begin to shift your perspective and give you actionable to-dos that will expand and improve your professional performances.

Fundamental 1: Choose to grow 

One of the biggest impediments to growth is our belief that we need to know how to do something before we do it. Obviously it’s important to know things. But to the extent that our need to know prevents us from continuing to learn and grow— we’re missing out.

Here are a couple of exercises to build your skill at growing instead of knowing:

Don’t know. Instead of only being a person who “knows the answer” (or wants to know the answer), start performing “not knowing”. Make the choice to be tolerant of ambiguity, open to ambiguity, uncertain even. Say lines like: “I have no idea!” Or, “let’s sit with this for a while,” or, “there might not be a clear answer here”.

Notice the kind of space this allows for different kinds of thinking, feeling and action.

Do the impossible. Put yourself in a situation in which you have to do something that might make you say, “I couldn’t possibly do that” — something you don’t know how to do, or you’re not good at.

Take a stab at a stretch assignment (for example, volunteer for a project you wouldn’t normally take on). Have a different sort of conversation to the kind you typically have with people (for example, give someone difficult feedback, ask for feedback, state a disagreement, or agree with someone for a change!).

Fundamental 2: Build ensembles everywhere 

Great performances — even solo turns — don’t happen in a vacuum. The most creative, innovative
and effective work environments are when you have ensembles — in particular, ensembles that are made up of people with different skills, experiences, temperaments and varied points of view.

Try these exercises:

First person plural. Spend a couple of days saying “we” every time you would normally say “I”. Notice how this changes what you say and how you say it. See how it impacts your colleagues.

Mix it up. Bring people together to work on a project who have varied skills, are at different levels, and are different from one another in other ways.

Fundamentals 1 and 2 were crucial when we partnered with Duke Corporate Education on a leadership development programme for high-potential executives at a global sportswear company. In the kick-off to our work together, we presented them with the choice to grow. With our signature exercise: each person was given one minute to improvise their “performance of a lifetime” in front of their peers — literally to perform their lives in 60 seconds. They took the challenge of creating this performance even though nobody ‘knew’ how to do such a thing, which vastly expanded their comfort with taking risks and trying out new behaviours. And the cumulative impact of this group bringing their whole lives into the room created an ensemble (in the space of two hours) that enabled the group to collaborate and support one another over the rest of their year in the programme.

Fundamental 3: Listen. It’s a revolutionary way to have a conversation

Mark Twain once said: “Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.” That was over a century ago. Today, driven by technology and data, much of our communication is transactional, and our relationships suffer for it. On the other hand, conversation is at the heart of your workplace performances, and real conversation depends on real listening. Studies show that most of us listen only about 20% of the time. And much of what passes for listening is really just formulating what we want to say while someone else is speaking.

Here’s your assignment:

Put listening first. Pick two meetings and a one-on-one conversation that are coming up and choose to make listening your priority performance. Try not to listen for anything, and don’t assume you know what’s coming. Pause longer than you normally would before you respond. Ask questions. Make more eye contact than you usually do. And then let what you hear have an impact on what you say, think and do.

Fundamental 4: Create with crap

A colleague responds to you with a nasty email, and replies all. Halfway through a new business pitch you realize the final slide features the logo of the client you pitched the day before. The amazing manager you were about to promote leaves for a job at Google.

Depressed yet? Hold that thought. We all have to deal with a lot of crap — situations and people we find frustrating, disagreeable, or worse. This can make us feel demoralized, off-balance and angry. But counter-intuitive as it may seem, we can create with this crap. Even as it challenges us to refrain from throwing a chair, it can also inspire us to do something new and different.

So start creating:

I said “create”, and I mean it. The next time something really frustrating or upsetting happens at work, write a poem, draw a cartoon, or make up a song about it.

The wow factor. When the crap hits the proverbial fan, say out loud (to yourself or others), “Wow. This might actually be a gift. What’s possible now that wasn’t before?” Maybe instead of firing off your own nasty email, take a breath. Pick up the phone or walk to their office and say, “I’d love to do a ‘take-two’ on our conversation.” Use the crap as an opportunity to help you change your (and others’) performances.

Yours stinks too. Be on the lookout for the crap you’re giving to others. Since we mostly think we’re right, or that less-than-optimal things we do are justifiable in response to something else (which they could very well be), it can be hard to see. But at least on a few occasions, notice your crap and then tell people, “I really did a bunch of crap today. Got any ideas about how to be creative with it?”

Fundamentals 3 and 4 had a big impact on a Duke Corporate Education steel and mining client. We dove deep into improvisational listening with them as they created conversations and stories rooted in having a “yes, and” response. Then we put their listening skills to the test in roleplays drawn from true company stories, in which we challenged and coached them in creating productive conversations and solutions in the face of, you guessed it-crap.

Fundamental 5: Improvise your life 

While we may not think of life and work this way, we’re improvising all the time. The scenes we perform in — arriving at work, running a staff meeting, having dinner with the in-laws — don’t have scripts. But we can and do become ‘scripted’ in how we perform them. From little things like the route we take to work, to pretty important issues like our style of leadership, it’s as if these performances — which at one time were actually new and fresh because you improvised them at first — were always there and now they define who we really are.

But if you keep improvising, you can continue to invent who you are, what you do, how you do it, and how you feel, see — and think. To get you started, here are my six tenets of improvisation:

Say “yes, and” — and mean it! This is the fundamental rule of improv that connects you with your scene partner and gives you a collaborative path forward. You accept what you hear, and then add something that builds on it. You never say “yes, but” or “no, but.” Try this in a few conversations over the next week — it’s not necessary to say the words, “yes, and”; it’s the action of accepting and building that matters.

Make the other person look good. Improv guru Del Close said, “If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming them.”

As an improviser in life, when you choose to relate to the words and actions of others as important and valuable, the ‘scene’ (conversation, meeting) you create has a better chance of being important and valuable. Try this: start your response to something someone says to you by saying: “What I like about what you said,” or ,“what’s important about what ___ said is…”

Celebrate mistakes and failures. Now that you’re trying out new performances and doing things before you know how, you’re going to make some mistakes. Is that a problem? No! In a performance, mistakes are a gift that you can improvise upon, learn from, and be creative with. Here’s an example: tell some colleagues about a doozy of a mistake you’ve made — today, yesterday, this year, in your life. Ask them what they think you and the organization might do to learn from your mistake. Come up with real, specific ideas — not generalizations.

Follow the follower. This is an extension of the “yes, and” principle. It means that as you improvise with one or more people, you attend very closely to the response that comes to whatever you just did. And then, in turn, you respond in a way that is connected to that response. On an improv stage, it creates a kind of synchronization that seems magical; in a business setting, it’s the best way I know to get and keep people on the same page.

Delight in curveballs. Improvisers love the unexpected, the unusual, the ‘weird’. It sparks creativity onstage, and can do the same at work. Let’s face it, you never really know what’s about to happen, so being prepared to accept curveballs as a gift to be creative with is a great alternative to being derailed by them. So throw yourself a few curveballs. Talk to someone at work you never talk with. When someone says or does something at work that throws you off balance, notice it. Smile and breathe. “Yes-and” it.

Go into the cave. Keith Johnstone, a founding pioneer of modern improvisation, wrote: “Those who say YES are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say NO are rewarded by the safety they attain.” Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I say: as you improvise your way through the scenes of your work and life, you’re always faced with options for what to do next. Often, one option is safe and comfortable; the other is unfamiliar, unusual or frightening.

Say YES to the latter. And then be ready to use the other five tenets!

Fundamental 5 is key in our ongoing work with a Duke Corporate Education client in the manufacturing space. Among other improvisation exercises, we lead new managers through a classic ‘follow the follower’ exercise, in which they face one another in pairs, and trade leadership as they mirror each other’s movements. Their discoveries about the give-and-take of leadership, and the focus and attention required to succeed, are then pulled through as we work with them on influencing, delegating and coaching in their new roles.

Cathy Salit is an educator in Duke CE’s Global Educator Network.  She is a performer, coach and chief executive of Performance of a Lifetime.  

An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website