Treat Your Teammates As Geniuses

The best improvisers I've had the pleasure of performing with were not necessarily the funniest people.  Instead, they were the people who made their teammates feel appreciated, hilarious, and welcome. 

 

I'll never forget a conversation I had with a teammate who had that particular gift in spades.  We were on a new team together and we were backstage after a performance that had not gone well.  It had sort of gone strange.  The audience hadn't booed or anything, but there hadn't been a lot of laughter.  Instead, there had been a lot of wincing smiles.  I was responsible for a lot of those winces, having played a Frankenstein-style monster who really liked broccoli.  It hadn't made a lot of sense and it had gone on for a very long time.  

But my teammate felt differently.  "That Frankenstein monster was hilarious."  I looked at her sharply to see if she was making fun of me.  No, I realized, she seemed to mean it...  I mean, she really seemed to mean what she was saying.  "And I loved that he wanted broccoli so much."  But it didn't make sense, I countered, it was technically a bad move.  "Yes!  It didn't make sense!  And that's what I love about playing with you.  You make senseless decisions that challenge audiences and your teammates.  Even if technically speaking, from a pure textbook point of view, there is no way to say moves like that are anything other than clearly wrong, I still love them when you make them because of the daring confidence you instill in them."

And I believed her.  It wasn't hard for me to believe her, I wanted to believe her.  After all, I was doing improv and why would I be doing improv unless I wanted to be good at it?  In that moment I was being given the benefit of the doubt.  My teammate was treating my bad moves with reverenced normally reserved for gifted artists.  She was treating me as a genius, and it made all the difference.

It might have been utter nonsense of course, but that didn't matter.  What mattered was that I thought I was an asset to the team.  I thought my participation was important and so, I participated fully in upcoming practices and shows.  And not just me, but everyone on the team was made to feel great about their participation.  Before you knew it, loving each other's contributions became part of our team culture and we all started loving everything any of us did.  And that team went on to be the best team I was ever privileged enough to perform on, creating quite a name for itself in the NYC improv scene and far beyond.

And why should team dynamics function any differently when at work? 

 

If a colleague makes a  contribution that is regarded as less than satisfactory, what is the effect?  They will know, of course, that others think their work insufficient.  This will most likely erode their confidence and encourage them to participate less, in order to avoid being found insufficient in the future.  Their lack of participation will require others to pick up the slack, stretching those individuals thin and making it more likely their work will suffer and also be found lacking.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, to a degree, that a team labeled as insufficient will become more insufficient. 

Conversely, a teammate whose contributions, even bad contributions, are encouraged will gain confidence.  They will act more surefootedly in the future, and they will likely increase their participation in search of more praise.  This then will allow others to focus more fully on their direct responsibilities, increasing the likelihood of higher quality work from all quarters.  Another self-fulfilling prophecy: a team labeled as excellent will likely improve its output over time.

Good exercises to bring up Treat Your Teammates as Geniuses include: