Improv theater training is helping a once-hidebound transit agency learn to work smarter. It’s a trend that’s catching on.
The philosophy and the tactics of improv theater, practitioners say, teach people to listen, to shelve initial skepticism, and, rather than potshotting others’ ideas, build upon them.
Plenty of employees think their boss is a clown.
At the Delaware River Port Authority, there’s a smidgen of truth to it.
John T. Hanson, chief executive of the bistate authority that runs the Delaware River bridges and the PATCO High-Speed Line commuter rail, was so determined to change the culture of a (by his description) hidebound organization that he studied improv comedy, performing with a troupe in Philadelphia, and later brought in professional actors to teach elements of the craft to executives and managers.
“From my perspective, DRPA and PATCO had a culture that was siloed and compartmentalized,” Hanson said. The bridge and rail divisions had little to do with each other, and there were other rifts. “Even within compartments people pretty much stayed in their own level,” he said. “We were an organization that wasn’t very good at listening to people, internally or externally.”
Indeed, improvisational theater exercises have grown in popularity as a training tool in the business world over the last couple of decades. Actors often lecture at graduate business schools, from MIT’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass., to Stanford’s MBA program in Palo Alto, Calif.
It’s not about learning to be funny at work or discovering the next Tina Fey. Rather, the philosophy and the tactics of improv theater, practitioners say, teach people to listen, to shelve initial skepticism, and, rather than potshotting others’ ideas, build upon them. One of the first lessons: Start by saying, “Yes, and ...” as actors do when riffing on stage, instead of, “No, but. ...”
“It’s getting people to let go of their fear of taking risk, kind of practicing creativity,” said Nick Gillette, a Philadelphia improv actor and teacher who has been working with DRPA for about two years. “It’s rare to get a chance to actually sit down and practice: How do I really give my attention wholly?”
An accountant by training, Hanson, 61, did not have a background in the theater or stand-up comedy. Well, “I was the class clown in high school,” he said.
He began studying improv in 2014, just before taking over as CEO of DRPA in January of that year, initially with the intent of developing himself as a communicator. But as he got into that world he realized what he was learning could help build a more collaborative work culture around the idea of “service and stewardship.”
All told, the port authority has been using improv exercises and lessons for six years. (Gillette is the second artist/instructor.) Hanson said he was introduced to potential uses of the craft about a decade ago in two iconic business books, To Sell Is Human by Dan Pink and Group Genius by R. Keith Sawyer, which is about the psychology of creativity.
First, about 35 people in senior leadership attended a series of improv sessions, and then an additional 40 managers had “peer-to-peer” sessions. During the pandemic, Gillette produced webinars with volunteers from across the authority as performers; those webinars are available to all DRPA employees.
“I’ve been here 27 years and it has been turned upside down, in a really positive way,” said Christina Maroney, director of strategic initiatives at the authority. “I feel like we’re definitely more of an ensemble, as opposed to just everyone doing their own thing. ... I think we’ve all enjoyed the opportunity to show who we really are.”
In her perception, people in disparate corners of the agency have gotten to know one another better and are speaking up in meetings instead of focusing on the self-preservation that had often figured in office dynamics.
“We were a very low-trust, if not zero-trust, organization several years ago,” Maroney said. “People didn’t trust themselves and they didn’t trust their own judgment. Getting a decision, getting a response — everything was just delayed because of fear of God knows what.”
Before he was CEO, Hanson was the chief financial officer of the authority. He and Maroney worked on the same floor and would often talk about morale and what could be done about it if they ever got the chance, he said.
While there is a pile of anecdotal evidence of improv’s benefits outside theatrical settings — and a chorus of evangelists — psychologists say those purported effects haven’t been rigorously tested.
But researchers at Stony Brook University and the University of Michigan found exposure to the tenets and techniques of improvisational theater increased divergent thinking, boosted mood compared with traditional social interactions, and increased tolerance of uncertainty among participants. The findings were published in the journal Thinking and Creativity in January 2020.
Students in an improv group were led through open-ended exercises, and a control group was given tasks with written scripts. Both were assessed with psychometric tests of divergent thinking, tolerance of unpredictable situations, and emotions.
Reaching beyond business applications, the researchers concluded that training in improv likely would offer psychological benefits for people who are depressed or anxious “without the negative stigma and difficulties in access” associated with other therapies.
Gillette, the improviser, said he has seen creativity begin flowing as participants in workplace training begin to realize that it’s OK to be silly in a group and to trust they won’t be viewed negatively.
“What we want to do is provide a space that speaks to the fear. ... We try and tamp down or remove, for the moment, the judgment,” Gillette said.
Hanson remembers the fear he felt in his first improv classes as a middle-aged executive with a bunch of 20-something colleagues.
“Having to do some of these things with them, it was extremely hard for me,” he said. “And the reason was that I was used to not letting my guard down. Not looking foolish, projecting this image of being professional and knowing what I was doing and not being vulnerable.”
He said he’s glad he was pushed to shed the comforts of status.
“In a very real way, I had to get over myself in order to be able to do this,” Hanson said.
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