In Dennis Cahill’s office, creativity is always at work.
But the artistic director of Calgary’s improvisational Loose Moose Theatre Company doesn’t believe that’s the case for all Alberta businesses.
Although many companies say they believe in creativity and teamwork, the proper environment just doesn’t exist, says Cahill.
“I’ll go to conferences or workshops where companies talk about how they are going to change the environment or hierarchy, but the signs are so obvious that it’s not happening.
“You step into the room and you can see a pecking order. People are afraid to speak out for fear of offending the boss.”
Cahill, an original Loose Moose cast member in 1977, has dabbled in corporate training for years. He’s too busy in his real job to become a corporate trainer, but he does have heightened insight into human behaviour – a staple for successful improv artists.
“I don’t have a magic key that will instantly unlock a creative door for the business world,” he says. “I will tell you it takes time and hard work.”
A few years ago, Cahill was asked by two Dutch corporate trainers to travel to Holland and help them develop workshop techniques based on improv training methods.
The techniques were easily transferable, says Cahill.
At the heart of the matter is a philosophy that, just like improv, suggests companies loosen up.
“Most experts on creativity seem to agree that the one component (for success) is a playful environment,” he says.
That doesn’t mean people are putting whoopee cushions on each other’s seats, but there must be a culture where staff can speak freely and are allowed to make mistakes without censure from either the boss or colleagues.
It’s not easily done. However, Cahill says that the techniques used at Loose Moose help shape that climate with improv artists time and again.
“Creativity only goes downhill when someone’s status is threatened,” he says.
“One of my jobs is to help people recognize the signals of status, and the impact it has on how human beings react to each other.”
To understand how status works, Cahill says to imagine two employees walking toward each other in a narrow hallway. Someone has to give way and “lower their status,” otherwise the employees will collide.
“If you want to try an experiment,” says Cahill, “move closer to someone and see how they react.
“If they are willing to lower their status, they will give you that space. If not, there may be a problem with conflict.”
Conflict with status is most noticeable with a boss and staff, but it also plays out with co-workers.
To understand the dynamics, Cahill has people role-play. They act out extreme parts, first a high-status person and then a very low-status person. Then people play roles where one person is only slightly higher in status than the other.
Once you understand the concept, the behaviour is observable anywhere, explains Cahill.
For example, high-status people tend to take up space when they enter a room. They use less extraneous movement, move more smoothly, make and hold eye contact.
High status can even be observed in office furnishings. The boss is likely to have a big desk and a big chair. The employee sitting across from him is likely in a smaller chair, and that chair may be placed a foot or two from the desk, says Cahill. It is clear who has the power.
On the other hand, low-status people tend to be more active. They fidget, touch their clothes and put their hands up by their face. They try to hold eye contact, but can’t.
By having people role-play, everyone begins to observe the signals. Second, and more important, they learn to understand how these status behaviours stifle one another’s creativity and confidence.
If a leader or colleague can reduce or adjust some of his or her high-status signals, or raise someone else’s status, a more collaborative process can begin. Loose Moose theatre techniques are based on the work of Keith Johnstone, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary and former Loose Moose artistic director. Johnstone is recognized as the world’s foremost leader and teacher of improvisation.
The techniques are based on Johnstone’s observations in human behaviour, specifically related to performance.
Cahill points to a recent business story that researched the qualities attracting workers to a company.
One leader of a desirable company had “flexible status,” says Cahill. That status allowed employees to challenge him on issues, and when he saw they were right, he would change his stance.
“If you can create an atmosphere where status is flexible, where people are allowed to fail and allowed sometimes to lose status in the face of the people they work with, then you have an atmosphereconducive to creativity.”
At Loose Moose, Cahill has seen insecure improvisational actors overnight turn into self-confident, comfortable performers because they’ve grown in an atmosphere of trust and creativity. “It’s like a big door opens and suddenly they have all the confidence in the world,” he says.
But there are also nights when performers lay an egg.
“Sure they fail,” he says. “But we teach them how to do it gracefully. They do it in a way where the audience still cares for them.”
It’s something businesses can learn as well, he says.
Just because an idea flops, it doesn’t mean the next one won’t steal the show.