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Photo Credit: Heather (via Flickr)

Recently I listened to a webinar focused on a somewhat unexpected topic: what can improvisation teach us about ethical behavior? The webinar was hosted by NYSE Governance Services, the leading governance, compliance and education solutions provider for companies and their boards, and Second City Works, the B2B side of The Second City, the world’s leading comedy theatre and school of improvisation. The speakers were Kelly Leonard, longtime creative executive for The Second City, and Heather Caruso, adjunct professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

I am a big fan of Mike Birbiglia, a comedian whose new movie, Don’t Think Twice, explores the life of a New York-based improv group. I am also always intrigued by how behavioral insights can be applied in compliance. In this webinar, Leonard and Caruso recognize that many people feel trapped by their patterns of behavior, both in personal and professional life. Improvisation turns these patterns into choices that are changeable by providing opportunities to reaffirm good behavior in self and others. The principles of improvisation can therefore be leveraged to build a culture of compliance in an organization through improved collaboration, transparency, and trust.

The key principles of improvisation revolve around practices, habits, rites, and ensemble behaviors that create an environment where a certain type of behavior is expected of participating individuals. This behavior, in turn, enables the group to create a unique and powerful performance. That is a crucial insight for compliance. The context of a given corporate culture – its practices and rites, everyday habits, and group behaviors – matters tremendously to how individuals behave. As Caruso pointed out, we know from research that this context often matters more than individual personality and values.

Improvisation explores dynamic relationships between an individual and a group (Leonard called it “yoga for your social skills”). It builds foundations for creating something great and succeeding together, but it also provides a safe space for failing together. Corporate executives who understand this important lesson should evaluate teams not just based on deliverables for clients but also how well they work together and support the growth of individual team members. To that end, the conditions and incentives set up for teams matter tremendously. As Leonard put it, “Teams require interdependence, not just being pointed in the same direction.”

Corporate leadership is indispensable to create such interdependent teams in every company. Compliance helps teams stay focused on enhancing this healthy culture where people know that what is expected of them is supporting the company as a whole and in line with their shared values. Improvisation can provide key insights for compliance when it comes to nurturing a conducive environment for commitment, cooperation, focus on others, and trust.

Anna Kompanek is Director of Multiregional Programs at the Center for International Private Enterprise