The Best Leaders Give Up the Reins

Do you have a need to control the conversation?

Sean Monahan, Creative Director at L.A.’s Westside Corporate Creativity, applies the principles of improvisational theater to organizational development and change management.

He discusses the “subtext” of communication between leaders and their teams, and helps us see that sometimes we use questions as a way of controlling the conversation.
Questions inherently aren't bad. In comedy, especially improvisational comedy, we try and avoid questions as much as possible because in improv, you’re in a co-creative process. You’re both in space of creation. You're both providing ideas. You’re both being vulnerable enough to share that part of you that is able to come up with just whatever.

In that setting, the act of asking a question is essentially the act of abdicating your creative responsibility. If my scene partner walks in and says, “Hey, look what I found in the driveway,” they just created and idea, an offer. They’ve brought something to the table and if my response is, "Oh, my God, a puppy!” now I'm “yes-and”ing them. I'm building what they brought and I’m making a statement.

However, if I were just to look him and say, “What is that in your arms?” now suddenly I’ve just essentially said in the subtext, “Hey, that was a great idea. Why don't you come up with another one?” That's kind of a jerk thing to do, and so the way we apply that in the business setting is not to say, “Hey, don't ever ask questions.” That would be absurd. It's rather to recognize why are you asking the questions, where is it coming from. Is it coming from a need to control a conversation or situation?

In the business world you think about where your hear the most questions, where one side is asking all the questions and the other is answering. That's an interview and there is a clear power dynamic in play there. So what we try and teach is the recognition that asking questions is a way of facilitating, and we sometimes need a facilitator. Meetings should have a facilitator. That's great.

It is impossible to both facilitate and participate because not all of the participants in the room can keep up with the hat switching that has to go on, because every time you ask a question in a space where someone is expecting you to give an answer, give a statement, or build an idea, suddenly they’ve made themselves vulnerable and now you just pulled the rug out from under them and they feel, “Wait a minute. Now you're asking me for something. I thought you were participating. Now you're facilitating. Now we are chafing each other because our expectations are broken.”

Really what you need is a defined role, and a great way to do that is to rotate who is doing it and figure out which people on the team enjoy it. Put them in charge of it every now and then, especially people with lower rank. It's a great way to get them involved, especially if you notice they are hanging back a lot, if they are not participating. The people that aren’t participating a lot in your meetings, every now and then give them the reigns. Let them run it. Let's see if they get more comfortable with the idea of how you operate within meetings by allowing them to facilitate. It's just for a period of time.

I think a lot of time we, as leaders, are hesitant to give up the reigns because we feel like, “The minute I do that, I am no longer the leader and the reality is that when you look at the best leaders out there, the people that have the most success, they are the people who are most willing to give up control for periods of time to let the people around them shine and let the people around them feel what it’s like to be in that sort of position.

Sean Monahan

Sean Monahan is a co-owner of M.i. Productions (parent company of the nationally renowned Mission iMPROVable and M.i.’s Westside Comedy Theater) and a Senior Instructor for Business Improvisations who travels the country leading works...

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