Leadership and career

Try Improvising to Improve Your Office Relationships

By December 14, 2016 No Comments

By: Jim Nortz

This post was originally shared in the Rochester Business Journal and is republished here with permission from the author.

actingSeveral months ago, I attended a business ethics conference organized by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics. During the conference, I attended many sessions focused on a wide variety of subject matter, from preventing corrupt business practices and understanding generation Xers in the workplace to connecting your compliance and ethics program to your firm’s business strategy. It was all very well-done, but the best presentation I attended was one given by Second City – the improvisational comedy group from Chicago.

As you may know, Second City began in the late 1950’s, and since then has produced the most famous names on the American comedy scene. Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Candy and Shelley Long are just a few of the comedic luminaries that got their start on the Second City stage. But what must be less apparent to you is why Second City would be attending a business ethics conference.

For several years now, Second City has been using their considerable talent to produce compliance and ethics videos aimed at the most receptive part of anyone’s body: the funny bone. By delivering serious messages with humor, Second City has succeeded in adding just enough sugar to help the medicine go down in corporations around the world.

In addition to attending the conference to hawk their wares, Second City conducted a workshop to give us all a look behind the curtain for the purposes of sharing with us the fundamental principles of successful improvisation – that, surprisingly, are the same principles that generate productive, creative, respectful human relationships.

Instead of lecturing us on the topic, they got the entire audience into the act. They began by asking each of us to pair up with someone next to us and to engage in an exercise designed to help us do something we generally don’t do very well – listen to what others are saying. Really listen. So often, when someone else at work is speaking to us, our minds wander or we’re busy formulating a response rather than focusing on hearing the information our colleague is trying to convey. In addition to being disrespectful, our failure to listen reduces our ability to effectively share information that is critical to our success. To help us overcome this bad habit, Second City asked us to have a conversation with our partner in which we began the first word of every sentence with the last word spoken by our partner.

This simple exercise – which apparently is one of the standard improvisational exercises to help actors listen – really gets you to focus on every word the other person is saying because you can never be sure which one will be their last until they stop talking. In addition, because you must be so focused on every word, it’s very difficult to ignore what they say and formulate your own response at the same time.

The second exercise they lead us through was even more potent – teaching us how to get to “yes and.” The Second City professionals explained that “yes and” is not only the foundation of successful improvisation on stage, it is also the foundation of successful, productive human relationships. Once more, we were asked to pair up with someone near us. This time, one member of each pair was asked to propose a location for next year’s ethics conference. In the first round, responders were instructed to begin their response with the phrase: “No because.” In the second round, responders were instructed to being their response with the phrase: “Yes, but.” In the third round, responders were instructed to say “Yes, and.” Not surprisingly, there was a step change in creativity and synergy in the third round that was not present in the first two.

Although they are each just a two word pair, when we begin anything we say to a colleague with “No, because” or “Yes, but,” we are wittingly or otherwise throwing a cold, wet blanket on the fires of creativity. By comparison, if we respond to our colleagues with a “yes, and,” we optimize our chances of coming up with better ideas together.

So the next time one of your colleagues pitches you an idea, try something radically new: listen to them – and I mean really listen. Then, instead of picking the idea apart, add to it by starting your response with a “yes and.” In so doing, you will not just be showing respect to your colleague, you might also come up with ideas that you never could have on your own.


Jim NortzJim Nortz is a nationally recognized expert and thought leader in the field of business ethics and compliance.

Jim spent the first 17 years of his career as a litigator trying both criminal and civil cases before becoming Crompton Corporation’s first Vice President, Business Ethics and Compliance in 2003.

Since then, Jim has served as a compliance officer at Crompton and for four other multinational corporations, as well as Corporate Compliance Director at Sutherland Global Services.  Currently he serves as Chief Compliance Officer for Carestream Health.

Mr. Nortz is a frequent guest lecturer at the University of Rochester’s Simon School of Business, RIT’s Saunders School of Business, St. John Fisher College and Nazareth College.

Jim writes the monthly business ethics columns for the Association of Corporate Counsel Docket magazine and the Rochester Business Journal and is a contributing writer for Corporate Compliance Insights and The Business Journals.

Jim served on the Board of Directors for the Ethics and Compliance Officers Association (“ECOA”) for eight years. He currently serves on the Board of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation and is a member of the Rochester chapter of Conscious Capitalism.

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