On the latest episode of the ASCII Anything podcast presented by Moser Consulting, our host Angel Leon interviews Dr. Krista Longtin, associate professor of communication studies at IUPUI, about how leaders can apply concepts of improvisation to improve internal communication.

While many people have some familiarity with improv through shows like Whose Line is it Anyway?, we’re not looking at improv through the lens of making people laugh. That’s just one type of improvisation. 

Rather, Dr. Longtin discusses using improv as “a tool to build connections between people,” to create a collaborative culture where team members can thrive. The point is not to make a game out of everything—the point is to cultivate a certain mindset, let go of some control, and not only welcome but invite collaboration and input (as opposed to mere compliance).

Bring a brick, not a cathedral

Dr. Longtin talks about the improv principle of bringing a brick, not a cathedral. The 10,000-foot view is that any time you communicate, it’s an opportunity to build something new with whoever you’re speaking with. 

Basically, if you have blueprints for a cathedral, you’re just telling people what to do—and if everything doesn’t go according to the plan, arguments will ensue. If each person brings bricks (representing individual ideas and contributions), by contrast, and the team builds something together, not only will the process be easier, but the end result will likely surpass what one individual could have come up with. 

When you think about communication as being a collaborative activity, rather than a one-way monologue or direction, it can be a game changer. 

Here are a few more takeaways from the podcast:

Better internal communication starts with getting out of your own way.  

Improv requires performers to quiet their inner critic and go with the flow. Applying this to internal communication, then, means leaders need to relinquish some control, in favor of a collaborative approach. 

If communication all comes from a top-down point of view—a one-way flow of information or direction—it’s like you’re bringing the bricks and the cathedral plans… and everyone else is just there to execute the plan. While this may get the cathedral built, it doesn’t inspire the builders much. It doesn’t get anyone excited or invested in the process. What gets built will be lifeless and dull.

A great leader doesn’t have to have all of the answers; instead, a great leader has to be willing to gather input and involve others in decision-making processes. 

Realizing your way’s not the only way will open up new possibilities.

If you asked most people what improv is, they’ll likely point to how the performers ask for audience suggestions to either set a scene or keep one moving, as opposed to following and reciting scripted content.

A willingness to not only ask for ideas and input but to actually hear them, consider them, and follow up with them extends the getting-out-of-your-own-way concept. You’ll learn that your way is not the only way.

In other words, everyone has bricks they can contribute, but when they routinely don’t feel heard or understood it conditions them to keep their ideas to themselves, seeing no value in sharing. Plus, no one wants to be perceived as difficult or contrarian. 

When leaders are able to elicit more input from team members, it sets a tone of collaboration. Not only does this take some pressure off of leaders to always have all the answers and make all the decisions, but, more importantly, it empowers team members.

In other words, when we build together, we’re more engaged in the process and more invested moving forward. That’s just human nature.

An engaged and invested team becomes a new culture.

When more voices are heard and considered, leaders gain access to more ideas and a more well-rounded understanding of the team’s pulse, and the team will start to see more of their own DNA in the company’s DNA. 

When open dialogue becomes more of a norm, it starts to reshape the culture. This probably won’t happen overnight, but if you’re able to regularly get out of your own way and foster true collaboration, it will become a habit. Once you practice the habit and it becomes like second nature, then the culture changes.

A piece of advice, though: you have to be sincere. If you ask for ideas about how to build the cathedral, but don’t really listen (because you’ve already made the blueprint), the whole exercise will just be a performance...and you’ll start to lose your audience.

Listen to the podcast

We’re not spoiling everything here! To hear what else Dr. Longtin discussed with us, head over and listen to the full podcast episode.