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Tuesday August 22nd 2017



Navigating the Corporate Dance of Status

Red-tango_silhouetteStatus is a hot potato in the workplace. Who has it? How to get it?  This article asks “What do Applied Improvisers bring to the corporate table?” What do we know about pecking order on stage that sparks organizational collaboration, creativity, and change?  This article is excerpted from my workshop Keeping Cool under Fire©   but rewritten with Applied Improv consultants in mind.

What is Status—through an Applied Improv lens?

New improvisers think of STATUS play as merely high Vs. low.  High = good. Low = less.  King Vs. butler. Boss Vs job seeker.  But High/Low STATUS alone can’t drive a scene.  It’s beginner thinking.

Seasoned players know that mastering STATUS is about situational finesse. High/Low STATUS games come alive as situation, character and relationships are explored. KnightsWhat’s funny lies in quickly running with the New Normal; switching STATUS and letting flipped roles catapult us –to somewhere wilder, more exciting, more true.

Applied Improvisersbring what we’ve learned on stage–out into organizations. Status games are more poignant here—here, where serious STATUS battles are raged over turf, budgets, creative direction, power and fame.

Now it gets edgy: Applied improvisers turn years of play into corporate counsel.  Improv STATUS games help leaders be more approachable–AND let Direct Reports speak up (past their pay grade)—so the best idea wins. STATUS play informs us how to walk into a room, influence pecking order, or lower our status to make others feel safer. Humans tend to pick a status comfort level and park there. But rigid roles stifle creativity — never inspiring a company’s revered goal of innovation.

“In everyday conversation there is a never-ending negotiation of pecking order…The {radical} belief that status is malleable creates an exciting new way to connect with people.”

– Keith Johnstone, one of Improv’s founders

Improv comedy founder Keith Johnstone said, “In everyday conversation there is a never-ending negotiation of pecking order. “

Example: if a clerk publicly challenges a VP (with wit and humor)—and it goes well–the staffer’s status is momentarily raised.

Johnstone continues, “The belief that status is malleable creates an exciting new way to connect with people.”  On-Your-Feet’s Robert Poynton adds in Everything’s an Offer, “By understanding upside & downsides of status, we make conscious choices Vs trotting out habitual responses.”

Business Hungers for Improv’s Agility

Companies who hire consultants find Improv scary– but sexy. The enlightened ones know we’re on to something big.  Companies—increasingly global—move at warp speed: re-orgs, takeovers, downsizing and midnight meetings with managers in Mumbai.  Improv training lowers our kneejerk defenses against what’s new.  Improv keeps us hyper-alert to the best offer. We pre-judge less and changed by what we hear more. We’ve learned to run with what’s given– even in a preposterous STATUS shift:

Oh, Queen Elizabeth?  Soooo, you’re moonlighting as a pizza delivery guy. How’s the pepperoni?  

As consultants David Bradford & Allan Cohen discuss in Influencing Up, high status can make leaders deaf (insulated with their own elite) –and staff mute (afraid to tell truth to power). I’ve observed this at times consulting with Genentech, Apple, Sony, Schwab, Salesforce.com, PBS-TV, etc.  It’s human nature. Haven’t you with your clients? Improv lets the best ideas lead the dance. Status IS malleable; a radical thought given how corporate people revere org charts.

Status is Deeply Animal. Bring on the Neuroscientists.

Monkey-BrainsStatus is deeply animal. It triggers the threat response deep in our 500 million year old Monkey Brains—the auto response that instinctively pulls away from the hot stove.

Some of us reference Neuroscience in our consulting practices. Neuroscience helps me explain Performance Anxiety when thinking on your feet. Neuroscientists now know HOW the threat response is wired in our DNA. This monkey part of our brains, the auto responder is pure Fight OR Flight.  There’s no distinction between cavemen fleeing from lions OR us dreading a tough Q&A session at work. Same threat response.

Neuroscientists Eisenberg & Lieberman, in “Trends in Cognitive Science”, 2004 conclude,

“The same primitive part of our brain, the Amygdala, literally flashes and lights up in a threatening business situation– as hearing footsteps behind us on a lonely nighttime street.”

Dr. Subramanian, “Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience“, 2007 found that “…when we are threatened, we’re less able to read subtle signals in problem solving. With an overly vigilant Amygdala we tend to generalize, err on the safe size, and avoid opportunities.”

Translation:  It’s not just you freaking out at work or on stage. It’s our DNA. 

Bottom Line

When AIN folks do workshops for companies, Improv play temporarily removes the shackles of STATUS.

  • Suddenly, deliciously…leaders and their direct reports are freed up… turned on to find the best offer and run with THAT!   All Eyes on the Prize; OUTCOMES. The best ideas come from whomever—and lead the dance.

Our clients take this work very seriously. Promotions and paying their mortgage get tied to it.

  • Applied Improv—STATUS work–earn consultants a respected seat at the table.

At AIN’s 2012 conference in San Francisco, President Paul Z. Jackson declared Improv to be in its 3rd Age.

  • Improv was first for play. Then Improv was in vogue for personal development. Now we’re in the Applied Improv Era offering shape-shifting experiences that spark organizational innovation. STATUS play is one of our hot tickets in.

Your thoughts?


MarianneBy Marianne Fleischer © January 8, 2013    Email:   fleischercom@sbcglobal.net

Marianne Fleischer is an inde Speechwriter and Speech Coach, offering private training and workshops. She is also a broadcast and corp. TV/events writer-producer and former newscaster.  Based in San Francisco, she’s thankful she stumbled on Jim Crenna’s improv class at Ft. Mason back in the day.


Thank you Marianne for sharing your perspective and experience with status in the workplace.  When the goal is to communicate clearly and get things done….we need tools to help us meet our outcomes.  Beginning to see and understand status in the workplace gives us a very useful tool.   I hope you’ll continue to share your voice with us in this blog.   ~William

About: William Hall:
William Hall is an actor, trainer and improviser living in San Francisco, CA. He works with companies to engage and involve audiences at Trade Shows, Conferences and Training Sessions. He is a founder of BATS Improv and the author of The Playbook: Improv Games for Performers.