Can we learn anything about employee engagement from the field of improvisation? My answer: absolutely.
But why go with my answer when we have the author of Improv Wisdom here to share insights and practices. Tom Peters, one of the top management speakers/consultants has included Patricia Madson as one of his cool friends for her thoughts and insights that can help managers!
It is my pleasure and honor to introduce Patricia Ryan Madson to you. Ms. Madson wrote one of my all time favorite books, Improv Wisdom: Don’t prepare, Just Show Up.
Patricia was on the drama faculty of Stanford University since 1977. I encourage you to read through this interview and to use the creative lens of improvisation principles articulated by Patricia to see how you can elicit, foster, and enhance employee engagement in yourself and others.
Patricia can you briefly explain the subtitle of this book (don’t prepare, just show up) it seems so counter intuitive to how most people see work and life.
You are right that the injunction, “Don’t prepare, just show up” flies in the face of conventional wisdom. And, this is precisely why it is useful. The real emphasis of the two phrases is on the “Just Show Up” part. When you think about it, preparing may actually keep us from getting things done. It is not uncommon to spend our lives “getting ready to do stuff” instead of actually taking the plunge.
The key thing, in improvisation is to START THE SHOW. GET THERE. Move your body to the place where it is happening . . . then, the action can begin. When our minds are absorbed in the act of preparing, (in planning ahead, in crossing all our “t’s”, etc) we are not available to the present moment. We are missing out on what is happening right now, right here. And, it is precisely the here and now that is our locus of power. I advise players (and this includes professionals as well as students) to substitute ATTENTION for preparation. Become an expert on THIS MOMENT.
Planning can become an end in itself. Don’t let this rob you of the power that comes from engaging in real time with all your senses. (The second and third maxims in my book give a more thorough explanation. of this advice. )
In the book you have 13 fabulous maxims ranging from say yes to enjoy the ride. Do you personally have a favorite maxim or a maxim that is most helpful to you?
Yes, I think my favorite is maxim 9: “Wake up to the gifts.” It is so easy for my mind is to see the problem, notice the flaw, ruminate on what is wrong with the situation. This maxim is a splash of cold water to remind me to realign my perspective. And, I don’t just mean “positive thinking” . . . I mean that it is important to train the mind to actually see the specific gifts that are present and around us all the time.
If you are like me , I NOTICE (and sometimes curse) the driver who rudely cuts me off in traffic. But, I can go for years without taking notice of all the courteous drivers who obey the laws, stay in their lanes, drive safely and even allow me to merge onto the freeway. When others drive safely, I BENEFIT. So, in some real way, ordinary traffic is a gift to me. When I start looking for the ways in which I benefit from the acts of others I open up a new world of privilege. It is easy to see what is wrong. It sticks out. Can you find a way to notice what is right, who is helping, who is making your path smooth? “Waking up to the gifts” is ultimately about seeing our lives (both at work and at home) from a new perspective–a realistic perspective– which is not egocentric.
There is a book with the wonderful title: Thirsty, Swimming in the Lake (by David K. Reynolds, an American anthropologist). I see most of us as being in this pickle. We are literally surrounded by the things we are seeking. When we “Wake up to the gifts” we are able to counter the nay-saying mind, the selfish mind, the mind that is only self-interested.
It strikes me that “employee engagement” has as a fundamental goal developing habits of mind and body that increase our awareness of others. Waking up to the gifts invites you every day to notice how much others are doing for you. Look for the specific ways that you benefit from the work of others. Further, when we see the gifts it becomes natural to say “thank you.” Saying thank you a lot is the mark of an attentive manager and employee. (or parent or spouse . . .)
It seems to me that many disengaged employees say no, not just to work but to their organization and maybe even themselves. Is there an authentic way they can begin to say yes to work and engagement?
I’m afraid that you are right in this. Just earning a paycheck may be what some of us are doing. . . rather than “making a contribution” or “doing useful work,” or “making a life”
For the disengaged I’d say: “What have you got to lose? Why not see what happens if you change your attitude instead of just thinking about changing your job? Apathy becomes its own reward. It is all too easy to look outside of ourselves and blame “the company” or “our boss”, “the economy” or even “the times we live in.”
I would suggest “stop finding fault and casting blame” and see what happens if you look at your job to see “what you are receiving from it?” Make a list of all the things you receive from your position being an employee. Include material things (paycheck, benefits, etc.) as well as other kinds of benefits–such as a having a desk and a computer– being part of a support system– having job training– etc. See how long you can make your list of “what you receive from working where you do.” Avoid any sarcasm or negative jibes.
Engagement is about connecting to what you do . . . to your purpose. I tell a story in the book about a waitress who was full of life–full of enthusiasm and pride in what she was doing in a small sandwich shop. She was alive inside her job, taking every opportunity to serve, to do her job well. Her smile will stay with me for a long time. I don’t think it would occur to her to ask that her job “be fulfilling.” Instead she GAVE MEANING to what she was doing. This was inspiring. I think many of those disengaged workers are truly, “Thirsty, swimming in the lake” . . . if they could only wake up to it.
To me, one of the strongest improv maxims is take care of each other. One way I heard it expressed in improvisation is that we are here to make the other person look good. Do you have a recommended activity to help people in the workplace take care of each other?
A great way to “take care of each other” is to acknowledge each other’s work. NOTICE what others are doing and comment on it favorably. I’ve never met a worker who gets enough appreciation. You can never say thank you enough. In addition pay attention to what others are doing, and if there is something YOU can do to support their work or fill in a gap– just do it.
Improvisers do this all the time: they see something that “needs to be done” and they just do it.
Not because it is “in their job description” but simply because it helps the work move along. It needs to be done, and I saw it. Step out of the pigeon hole of “what is my job description?” Work for the greater good of the company, for the welfare of your colleagues, and ultimately at the end of the day, I’d predict that you will find yourself “engaged.”
And, don’t worry about “burnout”. It isn’t work that burns people out . . . it is RESENTING the work you are doing. Do the job well. That the best way I know to create a fulfilling work life.
Patricia your book is loaded with try this exercises to move the reader beyond word consumption to active engagement. What are you trying these days to stay engaged with your current work focus?What a wonderful question. I am trying to be a better partner to my husband. I am attempting to listen more carefully and more honestly when he is talking about a subject that i don’t have a personal interest in. I want to support him instead of turning away to things that interest me. This is a challenge. I don’t always do it well.
Also, now that I am retired I have a lot more discretionary time. I’m pursuing a passion of mine: botanical art. I have included a picture of an apple I just did with colored pencil. And, your readers should know that even with all the “improv wisdom” in my pocket,
Drawing by Patricia Ryan Madson
I am sometimes engaged fully and sometimes I’m not. But when I find myself off the track I have some tools to get me back on course. I really appreciate the chance to chat with your readers. I want to wish everyone good fortune as they face the challenges of daily life. Aren’t we lucky to live in a world where we can help each other become happier at what we do. May you all “enjoy the ride.