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

Tabaee, F. (2013). Effects of improvisation techniques in leadership development. Doctoral Dissertation, 341. Pepperdine University Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Retrieved from