Episode 232: Heather Barnes talks about Improv at Work, safe and inclusive spaces, and shifting culture

Company Culture, Entrepreneurship, Guest Experience, Podcast, Women of Influence

Heather Barnes is the Founder and Director of Improv at Work, where she leads workshops to help organizations communicate more effectively through improv.  In the attractions industry, this includes leadership, executive coaching, and guest engagement, which energizes teams to be their most authentic selves.  Heather’s background includes teaching at Second City and the University of Chicago, and also held director positions at both the Museum of Science and Industry and the John G. Shedd Aquarium.  In these roles, Heather helped transform how employees engage with guests to be both more participatory and inclusive.  The transformations resulted in more conversation-based learning, rather than a presentation or lecture, and stronger company cultures.  In this interview, Heather talks about Improv at Work, safe and inclusive spaces, and shifting culture.

Improv at Work

“Being able to laugh at work impacts employee retention and morale.”

Improvising is not just about being funny, trying to be on Saturday Night Live, or doing two-person longform scenes.  Rather, using the philosophies and techniques from improv, you can make your skill sets stronger and enhance your abilities to respond in the moment, and respond to different voices.  It positions you to be more participatory and is highly transformative.

At the Museum of Science Industry, Heather mentioned that improv was used in the hiring process.  Rather than a one-on-one interview, applicants were placed into groups to see how they interacted with other people and how they adjusted in the moment to changes or if directions were unclear.  This turned job interviews into auditions, which allowed them to hire more qualified candidates in a shorter period of time, while also setting the tone of the company culture.

Safe and Inclusive Spaces

“You need to articulate that this is a safe space for everyone.”

In any experience where improv is created, it must be acknowledged up front that this is a safe space.  You are not requiring anyone to be the funniest or most creative person in the room, but to participate to their level of comfort.  It does, however, involve getting comfortable being uncomfortable in the interest of increasing skill sets together.

When people get comfortable participating, it allows individuals to feel safer when voicing an opinion or sharing something that otherwise might not be shared.  Ultimately, the goal of improv is to build confidence, teamwork, and collaboration.  Many students of improv have said that it has changed their life because they can focus on the audience instead of themselves.

Shifting Culture

“Treat your teams like you want your teams to treat your guests.”

When everybody shares, the tone can shift from being a top-down approach to being more collective.  For example, in a morning team meeting, playing games that are participatory and energize each employee creates a better environment than employees showing up to the meeting to simply be given information about the day.

By creating a fun environment, the culture of the team overflows into the guest experience.  If employees are enjoying themselves behind the scenes, the energy will carry when they need to interact with guests, particularly if they are enforcing policies that would otherwise be delivered in a stern tone.  Research also indicates that if you’re playing games with one another, you are more likely to help them out.  This naturally leads to greater teamwork and a more positive work environment.  The business impact can be quite transformative, and the outcome can be fantastic.  

To learn more about Improv at Work, visit improvisationatwork.com.

This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the incredible work of our amazing team:

  • Audio and video editing by Abigail Giganan
  • Scheduling and correspondence by Kristen Karaliunas
  • Branding and design by Fabiana Fonseca

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