Amy Poehler

When you think of the word “improv,” your mind might flash back to hilarious performances by funny folks like Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (pictured above). But while improv can tickle your funny bone, it also can improve the more serious business of getting work done.

Three SpareFoot employees—Jake Millward, Tevis Paxton and Nathan Sowell—have tapped into the power of improv. When they’re not at SpareFoot, you might find one or all three of these guys trying to elicit laughs from audiences at improv comedy shows in Austin, TX. In a nutshell, improv performers take the stage without a safety net; their unscripted dialogue is concocted on the fly. Improv is short for improvisation.

Off-stage, improv can boost communication, productivity and other facets of a workplace, SpareFoot’s improv pros say.

A Bonding Experience

Millward, a member of SpareFoot’s ACE (Amazing Customer Experience) Team, said improv can turn a workplace into a well-oiled machine or can fine-tune the gears of a workplace that’s already well-oiled. Employers like PepsiCo, McDonald’s and United Way have incorporated improv into their corporate training programs, according to the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“First and foremost, improv greatly improves a group of people’s ability to interact positively with each other,” Millward said. “There is an instant connection when everyone is willing to commit completely to an activity that would, in any other context, be deemed ridiculous.”

Certainly, engaging in an improv exercise at work can make everyone look and sound goofy. At a recent lunchtime session, Millward, Paxton and Sowell invited a group of SpareFeet into the world of improv. In one of the improv exercises, one member of a three-person panel had to give good advice, another had to give bad advice and the third had to give “the worst” advice based on questions from other participants.

United Way

United Way is among the employers that use improv in workplace training.

Millward said improv exercises like the recent one at SpareFoot “are designed to remove your instinct to judge someone else, which is what I believe prevents strong relationships from forming in many cases.”

“People hesitate to say or do things with each other because they think someone might think that they are weird or stupid,” Millward said. “By reducing everyone to the same awkward level with such a positive spin, bonding occurs much more easily.”

And that bonding can pump up workplace productivity, as it fosters teamwork among colleagues, including people who may not collaborate with one another on a regular basis.

Easing Anxiety

Millward said improv also can diminish social anxiety at work. At a workplace like SpareFoot, an environment populated by many dynamic personalities, improv can put colleagues on more even footing.

“It would be easy for a more shy person to feel trapped in themselves around so many big voices; they might not be willing to speak up. I am certain that improv could help that,” Millward said.

Improv in the workplace can allow people to stop worrying about how others perceive them, he said.

“I have seen some of the most uptight and reserved people come out of their shell after just a few weeks of improv classes because they have learned that it doesn’t matter what other people think,” Millward said.

improv at SpareFoot

Jake Millward (left) and Nathan Sowell help lead an improv session at SpareFoot.

Learning to Listen

Furthermore, Millward said, improv can strengthen communication in the workplace. Improv forces someone to pay close attention to what other participants are saying and doing.

Improv performers “learn ways of trimming down our ideas into neat little packages that contain enough information for our scene partners to understand what we meant,” Millward said. “On the other side of this, we must be able to actively listen. Every word is important, and ignoring the wrong detail could lead to a completely confusing experience for the audience.”

On an improv stage, the failure to listen can cause chaos. That carries over to the workplace as well.

“If someone is trying to tell me something and I am only half listening, I may miss what they are really trying to say,” Millward said. “If I am trying to communicate a point, but am being clunky and inefficient with my words, the other person may be confused or, worse, think they understand what I am saying and act upon the wrong thing.”

‘Just Throw Yourself Out There’

Paxton, a member of SpareFoot’s Sales Team, cited another workplace benefit of improv: It can ease stage fright, whether you’re delivering a luncheon speech to 500 professional colleagues or giving a PowerPoint presentation to a group of 20 executives.

improv at SpareFoot

Three SpareFeet put their improv skills to the test.

“The trick is to just throw yourself out there and see what happens. Each time it gets a little easier, and you realize that your worst-case scenario isn’t as bad as you thought it might have been,” Paxton said. “The only way to win is to play the game, whether it’s in love or work or comedy or anything.”

Sowell said a previous employer, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, counted on improv as a workplace tool. Each day, he said, the more than 60 people on his team would dive into an improv game. Then, the group would be broken up into five or six smaller groups and go through improv exercises that “would get us nice and ready for different aspects of our jobs,” he said.

“Training your brain to react a certain way dependent on whatever is thrown at you is a useful skill in comedy, but, more importantly, is a useful skill in life,” said Sowell, a member of SpareFoot’s ACE Team. “I am always ready to accept anything that is thrown my way with a positive attitude and helpful information.”