What Improv Theater Teaches Us About One on One Meetings With Employees

To most people, an evening at an improv show sounds like the emotional antithesis of a one-on-one meeting with their manager. But since you are a manager, it’s your job to change that perception and bring the energy and enthusiasm of an improv performer to your face time with employees.

If you’re skeptical about that premise, think about how thrilling it is to watch great improv — to see performers creating whole worlds out of thin air using only their ability to communicate. (Queue up an old Whose Line is it Anyway? clip if you need a reminder). Now think about the best manager or mentor you’ve ever had, and how meeting with that person made you feel. Excited, inspired, and free to be honest, right?

Both of these interactions rely on people being ferociously present for one another, supporting each other’s ideas, and having the courage to take risks. So let’s talk about how you can enrich your one-on-ones by treating them like an improv performance. (And if you use it as an excuse to call tickets to an improv show a “work expense,” so much the better.)

There are no bad ideas

“Yes, and” is the most famous tenet of improv. It’s the idea that when one team member introduces an idea into a scene (for example, that this dentist’s office is on board a submarine), the other team members can’t contradict it. If one performer says, “What are you talking about? We’re actually in the back of a truck,” the scene immediately collapses. Instead, the other performers have to encourage and build on it (so yes, this is a submarine dentist, and her next patient is a shark).

One-on-one meetings are the perfect setting to put this idea into practice, although how you “yes, and” varies, depending on the subject under discussion. When you’re talking about your employee’s big-picture professional goals and state of mind, you should try to be as receptive as possible. After all, if an employee shares a subjective experience, such as feeling stressed, your role as a manager is to help the employee resolve the issue instead of denying it.

For ideas concerning current work, you can still utilize the “yes, and” principle, but like a good improv performer, you can use it as a springboard for further exploration. So if a team member presents an idea that seems far-fetched (like a developer who wants to try their hand at marketing), don’t discourage their enthusiasm by saying no. Instead, use that “and” to help evolve the idea, such as by suggesting a project the marketing team is working on that could use some dev help.

If an employee shares a subjective experience, such as feeling stressed, your role as a manager is to help the employee resolve the issue instead of denying it.

As Peter Margaritis, a corporate improv coach, says: “In improv, bad ideas are just bridges to good ideas.” So, whether your employee needs to complain, toot their horn, or make a suggestion, challenge yourself to embrace and build on that energy. Even if you can’t use an idea that day, it could be the breakthrough that’s needed two months down the road.

Don’t Be a Stage Hog

In improv, there’s a term for a performer who jumps into every scene and always feels the need to be the loudest, funniest person: stage hog (it’s not a positive term). A good improv performer knows when to be selfless—playing a more restrained character to make room for another performer to go big, helping to boost a struggling idea with energy and support, or staying out of a scene altogether to let the rest of the team shine. The same is true for managers, especially during one-to-ones.

One-on-one meetings are fundamentally collaborative, but that collaboration can’t take place if one party steers the entire interaction, and the other is a passive passenger. So go into each one-to-one ready to be flexible, and adjust your role based on the team member you’re meeting with and their mood that day. In High Output Management, Andy Grove sketched out the fundamentals of this idea: that managers should come to one-to-ones equipped with questions but let their employee set the agenda.

If you feel yourself often losing control in your one-to-ones, gently insert some structure by asking targeted questions.

Sometimes, it’ll be your responsibility to inject the one-to-one with structure and enthusiasm. Other times, you’ll need to hang back and let the employee lead while you serve mostly as a sounding board.

If you have a tendency to do most of the talking in meetings, fight that urge and leave space for silence. It’s a concrete way to keep the focus on your employee, and it is an effective forcing function to get people to talk about what’s really on their minds.

Conversely, if you feel yourself often losing control in your one-to-ones, gently insert some structure by asking targeted questions.

Specifically, you should be asking your employees how you can help them: Where do they need support? What are their current stressors? How can you make them look good?

Another improv aphorism that holds true in one-to-ones is that you look good when your team looks good. As a manager, you ask a great deal of your employees, because your success is judged by your team’s success; one-to-ones are the place to show that it’s a two-way street.

Be Changed by What Happens

You should walk into one-to-ones with some general ideas of what you hope to talk about. But if you stick to that script at the expense of reacting truthfully to what this employee is telling you in real time, you’re missing the point of having these intimate, personal conversations.

The hard truth is that if you’re not committed to being fully present for a one-to-one, then the entire action could just as easily be replaced by a chatbot. As with improv, scenes start from a structured concept, but what’s exciting is their potential to dramatically transform as performers introduce new ideas.

If exploring issues means you don’t get to cover the topics you planned to discuss that day, it’s a small price to pay for your employee to feel truly listened to.

Being open to this kind of interaction requires being truly present in meetings, attuned not just to what your employee says but also to what they communicate through body language and tone. So if a team member mutters that they’re doing “fine” while looking miserable, slow the meeting down to get to a sense of what’s really going on. Many employees find it difficult to admit when they’re struggling at work, so staying attentive to changes in behavior might be your best early warning sign that they’re underwater on their projects.

Even if exploring these issues means you don’t get to cover the topics you planned to discuss that day, it’s a small price to pay for your employee to feel truly listened to.

Improv scenes are brief, but your relationships with your team are long term, so “being changed” shouldn’t end when your one-to-one is over. It’s your job to make sure what happens in one meeting informs how you behave in the next one. Set yourself reminders to follow up on issues that come up (and not just the negative ones).

It’s your job to make sure what happens in one meeting informs how you behave in the next one.

You Can Build Emotional Intelligence with Improv

If you’re reading this and worrying that you’re not funny enough to be an “improv manager,” relax. When we talk about the qualities that make improv performers so compelling to watch, we’re not really talking about their skill with prop comedy. We’re talking about emotional intelligence (EQ). And using improv in your one-to-ones is fundamentally a way to build your EQ.

EQ is arguably the most sought-after quality for managers today. Google famously concluded that technical expertise was the least important skill for a manager, and that the best managers were the ones who “made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”

The key elements of EQ—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management—are the same skills improv performers use to determine when to jump into a scene, how to read their scene partner’s body language to figure out what they need, and how to act in a way that serves the needs of the whole group.

If you struggle with these so-called “soft skills,” acquiring them can seem like a challenge. But the improv framework is a way to start working on them. After a one-to-one, make use of a personal checklist by asking yourself these questions or others that make sense for you:

  • How much did I talk?
  • How much did they talk?
  • What were they communicating nonverbally?
  • Was I receptive to their ideas?
  • Did we address their personal goals?
  • What, if anything, did this meeting change?

Jump In and Start Improvising

The idea of using improv as a corporate training tool has been in circulation for several years; Intel, Nike, Disney, Daimler, and GE have all used it. But you don’t have to attend a class with your coworkers to start putting the principles of improv into action in your one-to-ones. You just have to be motivated to have richer, more genuine, and more useful face-time sessions with the people you’re trying to lead.

Not only will your employees be more engaged, but you won’t feel like you’re only half awake for these important interactions. (And you might accidentally have some fun along the way.)



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