September 2018

Yes, I’m biased. I’m a former theatre guy. 

I think of this as I stumble on an old article about improvisation in, of all places, a copy of the Wall Street Journal (7/8/2016). From a young age on we’re taught to master impulse control. It’s what grown-ups do, right? We manage our emotions. Avoid distraction. Aim for a zen-like focus, a sense of control. Squelch the impulse, avoid distraction.

Enter improvisation. The art of conscious impulse surrender.

At Second City in Chicago, the improv comedy troupe that has launched the careers of celebrities like Jim Belushi and Tina Fey, scientists and engineers and nurses and psychologists now practice the art of impulse surrender. It’s been a total change from left-brain attorney to right-brain class-taker, says Second City student and retired attorney Irv Levinson. In a recent episode of “The Simpsons,” Homer recovers from giving a disastrous speech by taking an improv class. Yes, improvisation has left the theatre vault.

There is a place for impulse control, of course. It behooves me to know my blind spots. Left unchecked, I can swing toward sarcasm. I am a better person when I stay mindful of this impulse and let it pass.

But here are just a few of the brilliant gifts of conscious impulse surrender. They are subtle and delicious, and they have the potential to elevate any business conversation we have.

  • Celebrate the wealth of words.

We habitually consume language as if were fast food. Taste-less, quickly discarded, instantly forgotten. We babble without paying attention to linguistic nuance. Improv reminds us that at our best, we are consciously creating a conversation, moment by moment, word choice by word choice. It begins by truly hearing the words that come our way. By explicitly picking up on those cues in our response. Choosing words that are distinct, unexpected perhaps, surprising. When done well we actually call it word play. Nice, right?

  • Seize the energy of the moment.

Every moment has pace, velocity, stasis or momentum. Improv sharpens our ability to sense these dimensions. We tune into the energy of a person, a group of people, a moment. We feel it, and we consciously merge with that energy, subvert it or expand it. We begin to revel in the unspoken dynamics of a conversation, and we have the courage to playfully mold them. So liberating, right?

  • Embrace the gift of the detour.

In our linearly prejudiced world, we are programmed to avoid tangents like the plague. Detours are considered sacrilegious. Improv gives us shameless permission to investigate any cue, linear or not. It knows that a detour is often more illuminating and insightful than the predetermined path. A detour is the expression of an impulse that, for whatever reason, shows itself. It implores us to not simply give the answer(s) we think others wish to hear but to follow, instead, the thought that yearns to be expressed. Way cool, right?

  • Excavate meaning.

Great improvisers don’t simply spout funny stuff and or do silly things. They seize an impulse and create meaning in split-seconds. They have trained their meaning-antennas in improv class. They note implicit or emerging meaning, seize it, blow it up, shape it into a story. A key leadership skill for any corporate leader is the ability to articulate meaning. It’s easy to offer pre-packaged meaning. We carefully plan our meaning messages in advance. Advance planning is encouraged, of course! But how much more resonant it is when we notice the meaning that actually emerges in a moment! Notice it, name it and claim it. Stirring, right?

Wanna transcend basic transactional competence in your daily endeavors? Well, you may not be able to take a course at Second City, but you can sure as heck practice a little bit of impulse surrender every day.

It doesn’t mean simply “going with the flow.” It means consciously shaping the impulses you notice in a moment. Words. Energy. Thoughts. Meaning.

Conscious impulse surrender helps you to stay more fully present. It’s also great fun. And as you practice it more often, more experiences of flow will show up.

And that is really way way cool.

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Wanna stir me?

Wanna stir your colleagues, your clients, your team?

It’s the old logic-versus-emotion conversation.

Logic is a powerful form of energy. Emotion is the deeper one.

Here’s the little lie we tell ourselves. Logical folks like to be moved by logic. Emotional folks like to be moved by emotion.

Don’t believe that any more. Madison Avenue doesn’t. Madison Avenue caters to longing and desire.

They know what to stir.

Desire is the spark that ignites your beliefs and fuels your actions, Tom Asacker writes in his stirring book “The Business of Belief.” Desire is what moves you from thinking to doing.

I had the pleasure of attending TEDxKoenigsallee in Duesseldorf last Friday. First-ever TEDx event in that great city. Held at Nachtresidenz. Amazing venue, fired-up audience, 10 speakers. I had a terrific time. And yet – some of the talks stirred me, some didn’t. 

Logic will stir logic. I’m a brainy guy. But when your logic really TRULY stirs my logic, I get the goosebumps. I get that irresistible itch to begin, at once.

It drops down.

Go ahead, stimulate my brain. But here’s how you get to the deep stir:

  • Speak Longing

What are your deepest aspirations for yourself? For me? Our project? The team? Translate metrics language into longing language. It’s the language of our innermost desires. When you go there, you give me permission to go there, as well. Stirred.

  • Speak Vision

Beyond hitting targets and surpassing production goals, how will our shared future be a better place? Translate tactical performance language into the language of desire. My desire to belong. My desire to do good. My desire to help. My desire to create a better world. Take me there. That’s vision. Stirred.

  • Speak Emotion

When you speak about a project, speak with joy. With excitement. With anxiety. With exuberance. Speak the language of feeling. The sort of language that doesn’t show up in transactional emails anymore. Don’t fake this language. Don’t fake the feeling. Get the feeling first. Brim with it. Your language of feeling activates my desire to be moved. Stirred.

Here’s what you get when you stir me:

My devotion. My fervent desire to work with you.

We will start to soul-travel together.

Yes, it will go that deep.

The stir will show up in our Return-on-Investment. And we cannot think our way to it. The language of aspiration and desire will get us there.

Stirred.

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Chances are, you know about “managing UP.” The art of managing a mercurial, distracted, at times unavailable and often unpredictable boss. If you have worked in the corporate world long enough, you have likely taken a class on this essential leadership skill.

Hint: Know their priorities. Speak their language. Anticipate their needs. Be truthful and don’t BS them. Contract properly at the end of a meeting. Just a few of the essentials.

Chances are, as well, that no one in your class spoke about “appreciating UP.”

You appreciate the folks on your team. You do your best to express this appreciation. You may forget and you may not do it perfectly, but you know that it’s a good idea.

Chances are, you do little to explicitly appreciate your boss. It’s a potent influencing behavior, and yet, the senior executives I coach consistently don’t do it. Bosses rarely receive a word of praise or appreciation. From anyone. Yes, it’s lonely at the top, in more ways than one.

The reason for our lack of explicit boss-appreciation? Chances are, we cling rather tightly to a bunch of subliminal anti-appreciating-UP stories. These stories tend to run something like this:

1. I don’t want to waste their time.

My boss’ time is precious. I want to be prepared, get to the point, and show that I respect how busy s/he is.

Fact: Your boss is a human being with feelings, no matter how efficient her or his outer demeanor may be. The longing for appreciation is universal. Expressing appreciation is never a waste of time. Do not conflate being efficient with not expressing an important thought or feeling – which includes appreciation.

 2. I don’t want to sound like I’m sucking UP.

I’ve watched other people suck up to Senior Leaders and it just looks and sounds so totally obvious. I don’t ever want to become one of THOSE people!

Fact: Even when it looks like sucking up to you, chances are your boss appreciates hearing it. Dump the phrase “sucking up” and supplement it with the phrase “expressing genuine appreciation.” That’s what we’re talking about, after all. If your appreciation is heartfelt, your expression of this appreciation is an act of honest communication. Withholding the comment is an act over unnecessary filtering. You are choosing to be less authentic by not communicating an appreciative thought.

3. My boss is uncomfortable with overly personal chit-chat.

I don’t want to cross any personal boundaries with my boss or get into a conversation that becomes too private and which I will later regret.

Fact: Praising someone’s idea, expertise, or accomplishment is as safe as a professional conversation gets. It’s entirely about work. Your story about not getting too personal is likely about your discomfort in offering a personal remark to someone with high Position Power, not about that person’s discomfort in receiving such a remark from you.

Krista Tippett, the host of NPR’s consistently inspiring “On Being” radio program, chats with renowned British poet and organizational advisor David Whyte about leadership wisdom (Tippett, On Being, 4/7/2016). “Being a leader,” Whyte affirms, “means being visible, all the time. It means truly showing up and not simply going through the motions of showing up.”

Being visible, fully showing up, includes noticing our appreciative thoughts AND having the courage to express them. To anyone. It also suggests we appreciate UP, discomfort and all.

If someone who reports to you offers a compliment or thanks you for something well done, you appreciate it, don’t you? You remember the comment, right?

Act in kind. Express your appreciation, in every direction. That includes UP.

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You may be too young to remember the K.D. Lang classic: Constant Craving.

Haunting, hypnotic song.

Lang is making a rare concert appearance in Ft. Lauderdale this week. I think of “craving” a lot last week while engaging with a Europolitan group of business leaders. Oliver, the super-insightful German Operations Manager of a global manufacturing firm, gives me a little linguistics lesson.

Neugierde” is the German translation for curiosity, Oliver reminds meIt is a typical German phrase, constructed by fusing two words into one. ‘New’ and ‘Craving.’ Craving the New.

Neugierde is curiosity amplified.

We can learn all sorts of skills and techniques, Oliver elaborates, but this is what any great conversation ultimately boils down to … Craving the new.

Powerful intention. Not mildly curious. Not politely interested. Not kinda, sorta intrigued. No. Boldly craving the new.

Francesca Gino is a Professor at Harvard Business School. Gino has been researching the business impacts of curiosity (The Business Case for Curiosity, HBR, September/October 2018). Her findings are not unexpected. And they are depressing.

While paying lip service to wanting inquisitive team members and colleagues, most leaders actively stifle curiosity because they fear it will increase risk and inefficiency. In a survey Gino conducted with over 3,000 employees in a range of firms and industries, only 24% reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis. 70% said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.

Common-place corporate craving longs for “execute and shut up.” Curiosity is confused with creating efficiencies. Incremental change is glorified while true exploration is stifled. Exploration at its best means not settling for the first possible solution – and thus uncovering potentially more impactful and unexpected outcomes.

So how do we foster more Neugierde? If you’re a leader who hires folks, don’t hire for technical and social competence alone. Hire for curiosity. And in your every engagement with others, fiercely model inquisitiveness.

1.   Hire for Curiosity

A classic Google story that I love. In 2004 a huge anonymous billboard appeared on Highway 101, in the heart of Silicon Valley, posting a puzzle: “{first 10-digit prime found in consecutive digits of e}.com.” The answer, 7427466391.com led the curious online where they had another equation to solve. The handful who did so were invited to submit a resume to Google. Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO from 2001 to 2011, emphatically stated that we run this company on questions, not answers.

Yes, Google values curiosity. Google asks curiosity questions when interviewing a job candidate: Have you ever found yourself unable to stop learning something you’ve never encountered before? Why? What kept you persistent? The answer may reveal the degree to which an individual is intrinsically motivated to uncover new information and be surprised.

Fine Google questions. And great questions you and I can ask ourselves, as well. So, how curious are we really?

Other ways to hire for curiosity: Administer a well-validated curiosity assessment. Curiosity assessments tend to measure whether people explore things they don’t know, analyze data to uncover new ideas, read widely beyond their field, have diverse interests outside of work, and are excited by learning opportunities. Decide to make curiosity an explicitly stated norm.

2.   Model Inquisitiveness

If you want others to be curious, be curious yourself. Not merely in thought but in behavior.

It may seem obvious but yes, ask questions. Follow-up questions. And more follow-up questions. Show with each question that you have heard what was said. Heard the words. Understood the underlying meaning.

Mind your tone. Your questions are an expression of genuine interest, not an interrogation. They are an inquiry into best practices and new possibilities, not a quest to find fault of flaws. They spring from a sincere desire to open doors and expand the view.

Consider the filters that may prevent you from being inquisitive. Sometimes we may fear that we’ll be judged incompetent, indecisive or not intelligent if we ask too many questions. Time is precious, and we may worry that we’re wasting people’s time. The deepest barrier to inquisitiveness may be the belief that when we are more seasoned than others, we may have less to learn from them. Or the related belief that because we are the formal leader of a situation we should talk more.

Inquisitive questions are the hallmark of an easy authority. Full confidence. And a deep faith in a collaborative discovery process. Model them consistently. You will uncork everyone else’s curiosity.

This week, remember Neugierde.

Before you enter a meeting, before you answer a phone call, before you talk to anyone. Decide. Refresh the thought in your mind. Neugierde. Imagine the energy this super-charged intent will bring to every conversation you have. Intent is free. But we need to choose it.

And notice how your craving fires up every conversation you have.

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