leadership perspective

“Yes, and” from a leadership perspective

Parenting experts estimate that toddlers hear the word “no” as many as 400 times a day.

From a leadership perspective, how many times do you think adults have heard no from managers, supervisors, team members and clients? It’s likely equally staggering!

Thinking in terms of strictly yes or no is limiting for humans of any age.

As leaders, we can’t always say yes to everything our team members raise for consideration. From raises to time off to ideas or requests for team composition for special projects, there are times that we may not be able to agree. And that’s okay.

What’s important is how the conversation unfolds.

The problem with an outright “no” when someone broaches a topic is that it not only shuts down the conversation, it can be demoralizing. Want to get some folks to never share during brainstorming sessions or when they’re inspired about something? Say no without actively listening or hearing them out.

Then there’s the “yes, but”. When have you had a proposal or idea declined by, “yes, but x, y and z” the “but” in the response becomes a barrier or a dead end. Saying “yes, but” may feel better as a leader than saying “no” to someone, but in the end the feeling is the same – hitting a wall.

Encouraging creativity in improv theatre

If you’ve ever done or watched improv, you might be familiar with a technique called “yes, and”. It’s a transition that encourages conversation and allows creativity.

Improvisation is as fun to participate in as it is to watch. It encourages folks to generate ideas, work together and get boundlessly creative. To be good at improv, actors have to use active listening skills and consider other people’s perspectives.

The rule of “yes, and” ensures that even far out ideas aren’t shut down on the improv stage.

We have to get ready for the flight to Mars.
Yes, and we can’t forget to bring the monkeys.
Right! And what will they wear?
They need to be warm. Snowsuits with mittens.
Yes, and what about the fish?

Applying the “yes, and” allows for more and more contributions. It lets ideas get refined in a safe, collaborative way. Saying “no” or “yes, but” would change the story arc, wouldn’t it? It would be hard for the other person or people on the stage to contribute creatively. The conversation would be halted, perhaps even jarringly.

Imagine applying this improv technique to business

Consider, from a leadership perspective, the effect on your team members if you switch from “no” or “yes, but” to “yes, and”. We aren’t suggesting you go with the idea of hiring monkeys in snowsuits or blasting off to Mars, but what might transpire if we kept the conversation open and creative?

That “yes, and” phrasing that offers so many possibilities on the improv stage also encourages dialogue in the workplace.

Instead of people feeling their concerns aren’t heard, they feel they are heard (even if you can’t actually agree to what they’re asking):

I’d really like to talk to you about a raise. Everything costs more.
Yes, I can see how that’s a concern for you and it’s also a concern for our business.

When folks have new ideas to share, the “yes, and” response encourages them to contribute:

I’ve been thinking that we could offer that client some tailored reporting.
Interesting. And how do you see that working?
I was thinking that the new accounting software makes updates quick and easy.
That’s true. And what kinds of reports do you think they would value?

(Notice you don’t have to actually say, “Yes, and” but you go with the idea, for now, to dive deeper).

In team meetings, the “yes, and” approach can encourage brainstorming and creativity:

We need to think of a new menu item.
What about a breakfast food?
Yes, and what were you thinking?
Perhaps a cereal with seasonal fruit.
Or how about a savory lunch food?
Yes, and what would that include?

Applying the “yes, and” principle makes sharing ideas safe. It’s a good way to facilitate collaboration because when people hear ideas being affirmed, they feel like building on ideas.

This simple improv technique, from a leadership perspective, can help to build strong teams. Using “yes, and” shows that you value diverse ideas and recognize that there might be more than one solution to a problem. It helps to let go of our own ego and be open to creative and unexpected opportunities.

It also cultivates an environment that truly encourages innovation because generating new ideas is met with interest, not criticism. (And the bonus is that we know organizations with a coaching culture win big!)

Embracing “yes, and” is a great tool for communication

The idea to explore “yes, and” from a leadership perspective came up in a discussion with a former Padraig coach, Steph Jagger, who left us a few years ago to write and publish the story of the year she skied around the world, met her future husband and found herself. Her debut story is titled, Unbound: A Story of Snow and Self-Discovery was like Eat, Pray, Love in snow and it was fantastic.

Steph has a new novel published this month titled: Everything Left to Remember: My Mother, Our Memories, and a Journey Through the Rocky Mountains. It chronicles her experience caring for her mother after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

Steph learned from the Alzheimer’s community that the “yes, and” technique of improv is helpful with loved ones experiencing various forms of dementia. Instead of frustrating someone who is confused by arguing with them or correcting them or shutting down the conversation, the “yes, and” principle respects their dignity as you gently explore what they’re experiencing or thinking and redirect them in a safe way with a spirit of collaboration.

As Steph and I talked about her new book, we started talking about how that technique really applies to so much of life, including leadership. As is always the case, my chat with Steph that day was inspiring and insightful. Taking that discussion and applying it with, “yes, and I wonder what that would look like in our leadership blog?” led us here.

If you’re interested in exploring “yes, and” you can check out these resources:

Or google, “Improv classes near me”

If you have a loved one experiencing Alzheimer’s, you can find resources with the Alzheimer’s Society (Click here for the national organization and from there you can choose your local chapter in the top right corner of the screen) and I recommend you buy Steph’s book. I had the privilege to read an advance copy and you can preorder it now (Click here for Canadian bookstores carrying it).

Coach’s Questions:

When have you experienced “yes, but” in response to an idea? Do you often say, “yes, but” to someone at work or elsewhere? What benefits do you see with the “yes, and” technique? Can you think of ways to include this principle in meetings and conversations?