Follow Tina Fey’s Advice: Say Yes, And…..

There are a number of lessons I will take from Tina Fey’s memoir, Bossy Pants. Stay away from the paper cups in male writers’ offices at Saturday Night Live is one.** Another is that fame and fortune do not make women immune to the often agonizing trade-offs between career and parenting. But the lesson that is sticking with me the most is a lesson from the world of improvisational comedy:  Say “yes, and ….”

Before joining Saturday Night Live, Fey, know best as the executive producer and star of the sitcom “30 Rock,”  and as the uncanny mimic of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, was part of a Second City touring company that performed improvisational theater around the country. In improv, rule number one is to “Say Yes.” This means that you follow your fellow actor’s lead and play along. So if your partner in a sketch says, “Look out! He’s got a gun!” you don’t say, “That’s not a gun,” because denying the other actor’s statement undermines him – denies his reality — and derails the whole comedic/dramatic enterprise. So you follow his or her lead and respond as if you see the gun. Saying “Yes, and …” means that you build on your partner’s idea and add your twist to the situation, So you say, “My God! How did a gorilla get his hands on a gun?” or “Get behind me, my underwear emits a bullet-proof force field,” … and the comedy ensues.

Managers and co-workers would do well to follow the same cardinal rule whenever possible. This doesn’t mean agreeing with everything your colleagues say, but rather  developing an inviting environment in which creative thought is encouraged and supported. “Yes, and” means finding the value in others’ contributions and rather than criticizing and shutting them down. It is the opposite of what Lou Gerstner called the “culture of no” that he inherited when he took the reins at IBM in the 90’s and found rampant indecision in an environment where dissenters won the day and innovation was stifled. In a Yes, and culture, new ideas are welcomed, explored, and expanded upon. Divergent or conflicting ideas are openly and constructively discussed and evaluated. In this generous and generative environment, innovation flourishes, and team members feel valued.

Notice that the phrase is “Yes, and,” not “Yes, but” “But” is a negation, as in “I see your point, Dave, but here’s my idea,” which is intended to dismiss and supplant Dave’s idea. Don’t do that. Instead, try “I see your point, Dave, and here are some other alternatives, too,” which supports Dave’s contribution while continuing to explore. Yes, and is also a way to acknowledge someone’s feelings or wishes, even if they conflict with what you feel or want. It then opens up the conflict for dialogue rather than pushing it aside.

You may worry that “Yes, and” will lead to endless meetings and indecision, but it need not. Clearly identify the decisions to be made and the decision-making model (consensus, central authority, etc.), have a process for discussing options (using Yes, and) and for bringing an issue to a decision point.

Try this at work and at home, and you will see relationships improve. And for fun, go check out an improv show.

**Gross-out alert: Apparently, when some male SNL writers don’t want to take time to visit the restroom, they just urinate in a cup in their office. Ewwwww!