Employee Engagement

I was chatting with a colleague recently. She had just quit a job at a law firm because the boss was crazy and horrible to work with.  She also commented that there is “complete turnover in the firm every year.”

That got me to thinking. What does THAT cost?

Aside from a happier workplace with more innovation and the tribal knowledge that accumulates when employees actually stay with a company, does it save money to keep employees?

Yes, it does. Let’s read from the Wall Street Journal:

“Integrated reporting is in its early stages in the U.S., but German software giant SAP AG released its first full integrated report in March, combining traditional accounting benchmarks with newer metrics on things like greenhouse-gas emissions, research and development “intensity” and staff turnover.

SAP reported, for example, that its operating profit is helped or hurt by about €62 million, or more than $80 million, by each percentage-point change in its employee retention rate.

‘There’s a lot of support for meaningful and robust HR metrics for use inside organizations,’ says Timothy Bartl, of the HR Policy Association.”

(Apples, Oranges and Outliers, Emily Chasun, Wall Street Journal, Jun 4, 2013.)

So, buried in this article about FASB and reporting metrics is a bombshell about how important employee retention can be to the bottom line.

Why aren’t we doing everything we can to keep the people we have? Employee engagement is critical – not just in soft, unproven areas, but to profitability.

What could help the beleaguered law firm?

  • Leadership skills training
  • Communication and listening skills training
  • Team building
  • Creating an atmosphere of fun
  • Celebrating victories
  • Altering a culture of blame for mistakes

Applied Improvisation could help with all of that. If only they knew to ask…

Is there a company that you know could use this help?

Improv Training Builds Leadership Skills: Tabaee (from CSz Portland)

Article by Amy Milshtein, reprinted from CSz Portland

Dr. Farnaz Tabaee and Effects of Improvisation Techniques in Leadership Development

We work in an era of uncertainty.

Today’s economic environment runs fast, competes globally and refreshes faster than a Twitter feed. To stay competitive, business, industry and education leaders must think on their feet, making spontaneous decisions with confidence. Yet this skill isn’t taught or even encouraged in more than a few MBA programs or leadership seminars. With an eye toward changing that paradigm Dr. Farnaz Tabaee presented Effects of Improvisation Techniques in Leadership Development, a doctoral thesis that proves improv is a necessary tool for success in the 21st Century.

Born in Persia, Tabaee immigrated to the US at the age of 16. After graduating from college, she started as an engineer in the IT world, then changed careers to instructional design and leadership development. Unsatisfied with the instruction she was receiving, she wanted to teach but was hamstrung by the thought of standing up and speaking before a crowd. “Over and over people told me to take an improv course,” she reports. Tabaee did and took an improv class where she was expected to act in a scene without any initial instruction. She found the experience so daunting, she dropped the class after the first session.

One year later, she gathered her strength and signed up for another improv class. The class, taught by the same instructor, started with immediate scene work which led her to quit after the first day. Yet this time she noted some interesting changes in her presentations. “I was more confident and people noticed,” she recalls. “I became a better listener, a better coach and a better trainer.” Armed with continued success as a trainer, Tabaee went on to complete the improv series of classes at Second City Hollywood and continued to perform with ImprovMasters.

As fascinated as she was with her own experience, Tabaee was equally frustrated with the way business managers clung to the old way of doing things. “In my IT years, I was astounded by managers who kept to a business plan simply because it was there, even if the incoming data was contradictory to their original assumptions,” she says. “Intuitively I knew that improv was a very useful tool for leaders but I had to prove it.”

First, she had to convince her advisors at Pepperdine that improv is a topic worthy of a doctorate. It was a tough sell. Her initial advisor shot the idea down, claiming there wasn’t enough data to support a dissertation. Undaunted, she found a second advisor and two years, 350 pages and over 400 references later, Dr. Farnaz Tabaee proves that improv is an invaluable tool to business.


Her initial research uncovered some remarkable facts. It showed that business leaders make intuitive, ad-hoc improvised decisions 75-90% of the time, yet very little research has explored this improvisational skill set. No other leadership skill set that is applied at least two-thirds of the time has ever been so underdeveloped (Meyer, 2010; Mintzberg, 1973). She also found very high levels of stress in today’s business leaders. This combination of high stress and ad-hoc improvisation leads to ineffective decision making due to the leaders' inability to think clearly under high amounts of stress. One of her sources, Montuori (2012), sums up the situation adroitly, “Leaders must learn to manage stress, and become more adaptive problem solvers, capable of creating, innovating, and working quickly and under conditions of great uncertainty.”

Using a holistic model of improvisation that was revised using the grounded theory approach (where research results shape the theory), Tabaee designed the Improvisation of Leaders Workshop. This three and one half hour workshop was used as the basis of her research. Why three and one half hours? “Improv is learned experientially,” she says. “You need time to learn, practice, reflect and process. You also need time to feel safe and forget about the outside world. I had to break up one of my sessions in two, one hour 45 minute classes and it just wasn’t as effective.”

Tabaee conducted her study using 67 participants from various disciplines including: education, aerospace, finance, insurance and manufacturing. All of the participants were executive management, directors, middle managers, supervisors, team leaders, or project managers. Individual classes took place in different regions of the country and different ages, genders and educational levels were represented.

Pre-workshop interviews measured participants’ knowledge of improv and their stress levels. During the workshop, participants agreed to list three specific actions they would bring from the workshop to their workplace. They were further encouraged to apply at least one of the actions they had listed and commit to making a behavioral change. A post workshop survey was conducted immediately after the session, in addition to an interview a month after the session which inquired about the effects of improv at one month and three month intervals.

The results prove astounding. Ninety percent of participants reported gaining listening skills or the ability to express thoughts without judgment or both. Participants also felt more confident in expressing themselves without fear of being wrong or judged. Out of the 33 women in the study, 24 (72%) of them expressed feeling more confident in expressing themselves without fear of being judged.

In improv, “competent risks” are taken and mistakes are tolerated. After participating in the study, 81% of participants reported that they were better able to accept their own and their staff’s mistakes and learn from them. This theme also trickled down positively to other areas of the leaders’ effectiveness, leading to greater productivity and less stress.

“Competent risk is an important concept,” insists Tabaee. “People in business hear the work ‘risk’ and immediately think ‘careless,’ ‘sloppy’ or ‘disaster.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Competent risk means working within a known skill set at your highest level of intelligence.” As one of the participants put it, “I’m not feeling too restricted in my choices and can take a risk and speak up more often.”

Participants also gained an understanding of collaborative creativity. Seventy two percent indicated observing this phenomenon at the workshop or later in their work environments. One participant summed up how improvisational techniques improve relationship focus at work. “Business is about relationships and relationships can be enhanced by improvisational techniques. …Even if I don’t get along with some people, [I’ll] never forget to focus on maintaining and flourishing relationships at home and work.”

Tabaee’s study also noted lowered levels of stress, increased mindfulness, affirmative competence (individuals feeling confident enough to take action), desire to share leadership and the ability to make OPTIMAL Spontaneous Decisions (OSD.) OPTIMAL stands for Open to the Present Thought and Intuition and Mindful in Action and Leadership. OSD means that by combining rational thought, intuition and mindfulness, problems can be solved rapidly. In follow-up interviews, leaders admitted their jobs required this skill. As one phrased it, “Plans are overrated, especially in today’s fast-paced business world. Spontaneity does not mean irresponsibility or carelessness. Using it is often a necessity.”

In follow up interviews one month after the study, participants continued to enjoy higher levels of productivity and performance. This included employee retention, particularly among the Gen Y group. “There is an inter-generational problem in managing Generation Y employees,” observes Tabaee. “Managers often don’t trust them with challenging assignments, don’t share information easily, or don’t answer their ‘why’ questions. Improv teaches how to share information, give up control and welcome questions.” One participant noticed the benefits immediately, “We may actually be able to keep our Generation Y employees [instead of having them leave] after a few months or a year.”

Many participants also noted better family relationships. Tabaee is not surprised by that effect. “The techniques improve communications and help remove fear across the board. That will help in any relationship be it business or personal,” she says. She speaks from experience. “My kids are constantly using improv with me. If I say no to ice cream they prompt me to say, ‘yes…and.’”


After the study 100% of the participants agreed that improvisation techniques offer value to business. Participants reported quicker decision making skills, less stress, better employee retention rates, improved communication and appropriate delegation of leadership. They are also trying to bring improv to their departments, as one person reported, “It was very eye opening to see myself be creative at the workshop, so I tried to transfer what I had learned to my staff at staff meetings including [Tabaee’s] 4S principles of improvisation and not looking at failure as a mistake but an opportunity. We now do an opening exercise with these principles in mind. The energy level has gone up in my team and more innovative ideas are flowing out of my staff.”

There is also concrete evidence that improv increased awareness and decision making abilities. At pre-test, 91% of leaders indicated they were not aware whether they used improvisational techniques in making their decisions. At the post-test, after learning improvisational and OSD skills, 71% of participants agreed that they would change the method used to make spontaneous decisions to OPTIMAL Decision Making using improvisation skills. From post-test to interview, 85% of participants changed the method used to make spontaneous decisions to OPTIMAL Decision Making using improvisation skills. At the final interview, a cumulative total of 97% of leaders reported that they would change the way they make spontaneous decisions from pretest by using their intuition more effectively and applying improvisation principles. Reasons leaders brought for changing to OSD included 40% by using tools from the Workshop; 58% noted they learned how to be more spontaneous; 68% admitted to having more confidence and better at trusting their intuition; 98% noted they possessed the awareness of using improvisational skills to make OSD.

Given all of this, will improv be a required class in business school? “I sure hope so,” says Tabaee. “Business schools are lagging behind, still teaching models appropriate to the industrial revolution. They say people need to be more nimble and flexible but how do you teach it? Improv, of course. It rewires your brain allowing you to make spontaneous decisions efficiently and at the height of your intelligence.”

And don’t forget having fun. “Humor and laughter are a key component,” she concludes. “I had one president of a large financial company say, ‘Thank you for allowing me to play. I am in my mid 50s and have no kids; it seems as if I had forgotten how to play. Thank you for showing us how to be creative together like that. I didn’t realize how much I needed that.’”

Dr. Tabaee’s comments were made in an interview on June 11, 2013, with Amy Milshtein and Patrick Short of CSz-Portland. Article by Amy Milshtein. Dr. Tabaee can be reached at Farnaz.tabaee@gmail.com

Tabaee, F. (2013). Effects of improvisation techniques in leadership development. Doctoral Dissertation, 341. Pepperdine University Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Retrieved from http://pepperdine.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15093coll2/id/349

Why Customer Service Matters (from CSz Portland)

Reposted from CSz Portland, and written by Patrick Short.

In 2014, I had the honor of performing as Master of Ceremonies at the Annual Customer Service Banquet for the Port of Portland and PDX, our airport.

310 people from 65 companies attended; they were honoring the Customer Service Superstars nominated from each of the companies who do work at the airport – airlines, government agencies, rental car companies, parking and transportation, retail, restaurants and services. The Port of Portland has an employee group that coordinates customer service across all of the companies – treating each customer as a client of all of the companies, whether they are at that moment or not. It’s a holistic approach, and as a frequent consumer of PDX services, I can attest that it works. The airport is frequently voted the Best in America.

At the end of the event, I transformed into a referee and CSz-Portland performed our ComedySportz® show, themed on customer service. It was a rocking good time, but the most important and affecting part of the night came earlier.

The Port of Portland had received an email, through Huntleigh USA, from a woman in Aurora, CO, complimenting a Huntleigh skycap, Moses San Nicolas, on his wheelchair service. Let’s read the note:

Gary Wolf
Huntleigh USA
7535 NE Ambassador Place
Suite A1
Portland, OR 97220

Dear Mr. Wolf:

I hope you will take the time to read this letter, as one of your employees needs to be recognized for the help he provided to me and my sister, Denise, on a trip we took from Portland to San Francisco on 10/1/13. This was the hardest trip either my sister or I had ever taken, for you see, I was bringing my 52 year old sister home to California to die.  As her little sister and the nurse in the family, I had the hard task of flying from Colorado to Portland, packing my sister’s life up in a suitcase, and bringing her home, where the rest of the family was waiting. She really did not want to go, and we had to term this trip as “just a visit” to her, because she was scared and nervous about flying home, and could not handle the fact that she would not be coming back to Oregon, her home since 1984. I think that deep down she realized, though, that she needed help in the final days of Stage IV lung cancer, which she was diagnosed with back in May 2013. She was kind of being forced to give up control of her life. She was very, very sick, and could not longer walk, and was using oxygen.

We had had a bad day so far on 10/1/13, as it was an extremely stressful day what with getting her packed, getting her dressed, getting her to the car, getting to the airport. She told me many times in the car that she did not want to go, and I was feeling guilt and fear as my mission to bring her home included kind of take her choices away from her when she had been independent for so long.

I brought the rental car back to the underground garage, and the rental car people were nice enough to call me a skycap.  And into our lives, pushing a wheelchair, walked Moses San Nicolas. I realize that we could have gotten anyone, but I feel that getting Moses was the first stroke of luck Denise and I had had since I got there.  He showed up, and took immediate control.  I had no idea how he did it, but he managed to get my sister in a wheelchair, both of my sister’s suitcases, and her oxygen concentrator, from the garage into the airport. All of the sudden, a huge weight had been lifted off of me, as I had worried the whole way to the airport how I was going to manage getting everything into the airport.  More importantly, he talked to us and calmed us down.  I think that he could sense that we needed a distraction. He told us about his family, where he was from, his life.  He asked my sister and me for our names, and he talked to my sister at length about her diagnosis, where we were going, why going home for treatment was a good thing. He was the best distraction my sister and I could have asked for. He stopped to allow her to smoke, one of her favorite pastimes, and she was grateful.  He never once judged her, or told her she shouldn’t smoke.  He was an extremely calming presence for both of us.  He got our IDs, got us our boarding passes, got us through security, got us to the gate, all the while talking about everything, asking questions, maintaining calm.  He even gave my sister a badge he had with his first name on it, which Denise stuck into her purse. Denise told him that she was really nervous about going home, and then told him how much he calmed her down and make this trip seem more “okay”. He left us safely at the gate.  My sister was mad that I only tipped him $15 and not $20!

My sister died peacefully on October 14th, at home, with her family all around her. We told our whole family about how lucky we were that Moses came into our lives for a short time.  In the few days before she got very sick, we talked about writing a letter to you about Moses, and she wanted me to do it immediately, so she could sign it.  Time got the best of us, and we never did get to write the letter than I am writing to you now. After she died, I went through her purse and found the name tag that Moses had given her, and it reminded me of how he touched her life in her last few weeks. The last picture taken of my sister is in the wheelchair, in the parking garage, with Moses standing next to her. She insisted that I take it, and then would not allow any more pictures of herself after that.

I don’t know that Moses knew what impact he had on our lives that day.  Being a skycap, I am sure, cannot be easy.  Dealing with the public, I know from my 20 years as a nurse, has its’ ups and downs. But he really made a difference to me that day, and more importantly, he showed genuine kindness and compassion to my sister, and for that, I will always be grateful. He made this sad trip just a little happier for me and Denise.

I hope you will be kind enough to give him a copy of this letter, so he can know that he is appreciated by me and my family. I hope you will confirm that you received this email.  I also sent it through the website to the corporate office.

Renee N Gorkin, RN, BSN (on behalf of me and Denise Malaspina)
Aurora, Colorado

The Port flew Renee in for the banquet so that she could give Moses the additional $5. Denise’s two children, who live in the Portland area, were also there. This was a very moving event, and a terrific reminder that we usually don’t know much about other people’s struggles; meeting them where they are is important. I hope every customer service professional takes this to heart. (It would help if customers took it to heart, too.) I need to be reminded of this all the time. I hope you don’t mind me reminding you.



Here is a video reminder from a church in Arkansas, called “Get Service“, that reinforces the concept rather nicely. Serendipitously, this arrived in my Facebook feed from my cousin Cindy Maynard while I was writing this post. Meant to be, yes?

Patrick Short flew to DC the morning after the event and got royal treatment from Southwest Airlines and TSA employees who had been at the event. He realizes that it can’t happen every time, but it was pretty cool nonetheless. The email was reprinted with the permission of Renee Gorkin, Moses San Nicolas, CSz Portland and the Port of Portland.