If you happened to catch Simon Sinek’s recent interview on Inside Quest about millennials in the workplace, then you may already be familiar with his theory about why they are the way they are. If you haven’t seen it, he blames their typically entitled, narcissistic, unfocused, lazy, self interested behaviour on four key factors: Bad parenting, technology, impatience, and environment. He also says the onus is now on businesses to step up and work extra hard to help this “tough to manage” generation build confidence and social skills integral to a well functioning workplace.
The problem is most companies aren’t equipped to do this challenging work on top of their already challenging work. Token efforts like beanbags and free food, while seemingly expected, will only get you so far. And if you’re a millennial who in any small way recognises these traits in your own behaviour, the good news is that Simon says its not your fault. The bad news is he doesn’t offer any real solutions to the problems he’s identified. But whether you’re an employer or employee, there is one thing you can do that will help make the most of this frustrating situation: Improv training.
Now before you laugh, (and it’s perfectly OK to laugh), lets quickly go through Simon’s four factors one-by-one and explore how improv can help.
1. Bad Parenting. Millennials were told they were special, that they could have anything they want, and many of them were given awards for participation rather than real achievement, or got ahead because their parents pushed or complained. As a result of these failed strategies millennials developed a false sense of entitlement which hasn’t served them well in the real world. Especially when they find out they aren’t so special and Mum can’t get them a promotion. As a result their self esteem takes a beating.
An improv class is a special and magical thing, but let’s be honest, no amount of improv training can make up for failed parenting tactics. Perhaps only years of therapy can do that, but what an improv class can do is help people rediscover what is in fact special about themselves and celebrate those differences in a safe, welcoming place. Because the truth is, everyone is special, millennial or not. And our unique differences and points of view are an integral part of what it takes to make an improv class, or show — or a business — work. And while there may be no substitute for doting parents, being in a room with a bunch of people who all have your back and whose only job is to make you look like a genius, will surely give you the feels. The difference, however, is that in an improv workshop, class, or ensemble, you’re part of something bigger. Improv is all about leveraging each person’s specialness to make the whole team look good, not just the individual. It’s all about “We,” not “Me.”
- Millennials don’t know how to communicate offline > Improv teaches active listening, verbal, and non-verbal communication skills you can put to immediate use.
- Millennials are social media and phone addicts who crave instant dopamine hits > Improv gets you off offline and on “stage” where laughter delivers a bigger, healthier and perhaps more addictive hit.
- Millennials don’t feel appreciated and don’t show appreciation unless it’s a “like” > Improv is built around a core concept of “Yes, and…” which is all about graciously accepting and appreciating other’s unique points of view and ideas, and then building on them.
- Millennials are constantly comparing themselves to others (Facebook = depression) > Improv gives you a meaningful and fun way to connect with others, by joining a class you become part of an ensemble where our differences are celebrated, real human connections are made, and you always feel supported.
2. Technology — The human desire for connection is strong, and yet technology strips much of it away. We all know online connections are rarely real, durable, or meaningful. Worse, the portals into this false view of the world are addictive. The little hits of dopamine “likes” and “follows” deliver keep you coming back for more and yet research proves people who spend more time on Facebook are more depressed. Part of the reason for this is what we see and share online is a filtered perspective of life. Everyone looks like they have it figured out, which in turn reminds viewers that they don’t.
On the first night of every Laugh-Masters Academy Level 1 class we tell our students: “Look around, because in eight weeks this room full of strangers will be a room full of new best friends.” And they always look at us like we’re crazy. But fast forward to eight weeks later, and sure enough they’re practically inseparable. They easily operate with a “group mind.” They share ideas without fear of judgement. And they can hang out at the pub together for hours. The relationships and bonds that form inside an improv class are real, they’re durable, and they’re meaningful — inside and outside of the classroom, which is why the sense of community at schools like LMA is so strong.
Part of the reason for this is that improv training helps you develop trust in others (and in yourself). It creates a safe, supportive place to be vulnerable, and it allows all of us to explore and discover the depths of our personality, share our own voice and unique point of view, and confidently put our inner beauty on display. On top of all this, if you think seeing a little red dot on Facebook gives you a hit of addictive dopamine, wait until you get your first laugh from a group of classmates, or even better, a live audience. That’s the real crack. The kind that’s good for you.
3. Impatience — Millennials grew up with instant access to everything: Watch online now — no checking movie schedules. Swipe right — No awkward dating. Love those shoes — Amazon delivers tomorrow. But there ain’t no app for job satisfaction or deep and meaningful relationships — these take time. And if most of your social skills are learned online, it’s likely you’ve never developed the emotional intelligence, basic human communication skills, or commitment making abilities required cope in the real world, let alone the workplace.
Improv is great for impatient people because it forces them to be active and engaged in the present moment. But best of all, you can be, do, or make anything you want happen on an improv stage in an instant. Literally anything. But to make it work you have to use imagination, heightened awareness and collaborate with your partners on stage using what to audiences looks like magic, but in reality, is just a group of people committing to an idea and leveraging highly developed communications skills to take that idea and run.
The really cool thing is that, without ever really trying, everyone in in an improv class is fine tuning their social skills — learning how to actively listen, how to communicate a specific idea, how to use eye contact, read body language, speak with confidence, take high status when necessary, or when to take low status if it better serves the group. And all of these things can contribute to higher job satisfaction and foster meaningful relationships. In short, the lessons, skills, and social coping mechanisms taught in an improv class can be put to immediate use — in class, on stage, and in the real world.
4. Environment — Even the best HR department isn’t going to give out participation medals, beg for promotions on employees behalf, coddle hurt feelings or tolerate bad attitudes. But when corporate environments care more about short term profits than employee growth and satisfaction they miss the chance to help staff build confidence, nurture cooperation skills, find balance, overcome the need for instant gratification, and appreciate the fulfilment that comes from working with others towards a common goal.
Simon claims that millennials blame themselves for the general malaise and dissatisfaction they feel on the job, and if he’s right, then leadership needs to jump in and pick up the slack. And the first step is to create a corporate culture where people feel valued, supported, and able to suggest any idea, ask for help, or admit mistakes, without fear of judgement. You can’t create a healthy, productive environment by redecorating. Its a byproduct of sincere, open, honest management, and the coalescence of your team over time. Above all else it comes through creating what we call in improv an “ensemble mentality.” Which is essentially a group of people who like, support, trust, and believe in each other as they work towards a shared goal.
Once you have millennials who can listen, communicate, collaborate, and build on each other’s ideas, you’re sure to see job satisfaction increase and turnover decrease, along with less depression, less negativity, less gossip and less political nonsense. You’ll also see more laughter. Which is what you want, because laughter in the workplace typically means people are comfortable, communicating, un-stressed, and happy.
In summary, students of improv will walk away from a class or corporate workshop with increased confidence, improved social skills and the awareness that true satisfaction comes from within. They’ll enjoy a newly discovered power inside themselves to create, develop, nurture, and realise the things they need for themselves, and perhaps more meaningfully, for and with others.
For these reasons, and many more, improv training should be mandatory for millennials, maybe even for everyone. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to stock up on beanbags and free food. Those are still very, very necessary.