Are You on a Team? Make Everyone Look Good
Off Limits (my former improv troupe) held a reunion in August. Three of us in person, three on Zoom. Our last photo was from 2014. Seven years ago, we couldn’t possibly have imagined where we’d be today. One member lives in Spain, one is a nun, one is earning his master’s degree, two are semi-retired, and one is fully retired with a get-away in Hawaii. And then there’s the pandemic. We haven’t performed for over a decade but the bond among us remains strong.
When you’re on stage creating a story that’s never been written, there’s no “phoning it in.” It’s essential to listen, watch, and accept everything offered by your scene partners. Then you add to it. Most people have heard of the “say yes” lesson from improv. But you may not have heard of the equally important lesson, “make your scene partners look good.”
The last point is no small feat. The fear of appearing foolish focuses your brain on yourself instead of where it needs to be, on the scene and your fellow performers. (BTW, if you’re an improviser you will look like an idiot—repeatedly.) The tacit agreement is to save each other if someone is stranded on stage. You’re obliged to jump in and explain why another character is behaving strangely. Or mirror the same weirdness so it becomes a “thing.” You trust they have your back and vice versa. The point is, you’re not alone. Safety in numbers means all eyes are not on you, they’re on the group.
In rehearsals, when a skit fell into disarray, we’d joke, “Save yourself!” To belabor a dying scene is torture for those on stage and in the audience. That’s when an off-stage actor would step out put an end everyone’s misery with, “And scene.” (Presume dropped curtain.)
A terrific scene is the work of the entire ensemble, not just one actor. Everyone contributes what’s needed to add to the story. The focus is on serving the whole, not oneself; it’s quintessential teamwork. There is nothing quite like the exhilaration of flying together through the unknown to land a story that astonishes the audience.
In leadership classes, I’ve asked participants for examples of work teams that enjoy similar synergistic dynamics. Those who told their stories often had tears in their eyes while relaying their experiences. These are peaks in a career. To paraphrase from the introduction to The Fifth Discipline, if you’ve ever been part of one of these amazing teams you spend the rest of your life trying to recreate it. In the book Extraordinary Teams, the authors, Geoffrey Bellman and Kathleen Ryan researched the commonalities of such groups. It turns out you can purposely create a well-functioning team rather than to rely on fate.
The colleagues who make their teams and its members look good are the people who complement the work of others. They initiate, support, praise, and offer creative ideas. They step up to lead when it’s needed and back off when it’s not. They don’t hog the credit or accolades because they know there’s plenty to go around. Contrast these behaviors with the “Look at Me, Tell Me How Fabulous I Am!” person. Some take credit where none is due. Some trip up the team’s work by going it alone causing needless problems. Their drive to be in the spotlight causes friction and lousy undercurrents among people. If the team succeeds, it’s often because others work around that person rather than with them.
In my career, I’ve worked on my own and as part of a team in approximately equal measure. I prefer being in a well-functioning team. As for my stage dreams, I never wanted to be a solo performer. Each of us in Off Limits had moments of individual glory but we were still an ensemble. We trusted each other to step back to allow someone to shine, to step in to help build the story, or to step up if the scene was flailing. In the end, the synergy made everyone look good. And if the scene was a complete disaster? We trusted someone would save us by stepping forward to say, “And scene.” Drop curtain.
As you consider your own work, what do you do to help others look good?