Career & Success

Riding the Feedback Loop to Authentic Self-Expression

How the lessons of improv theater help business leaders become their true, powerful selves.

September 09, 2016

| by Martin J. Smith


illustration of two individuals speaking to one another through giant masks

If you force yourself to smile, the person you’re talking to is also likely to smile, and the feedback loop begins. | iStock/dane_mark

For more than a decade, business expert Richard Cox has been using improvisational theater techniques to teach aspiring corporate leaders how to become more authentically powerful.

“You can’t afford to not be good at this,” says Cox, whose management design firm, People Rocket, has worked with executives, leaders, and teams at such firms as Google, Cisco, and JPMorgan Chase. “You depend on your job as a leader to get other people to take actions. You need to be skilled in relationships, in influence, and in communication. There’s no getting around it.”

Group dynamics and body language are among the concepts covered in Acting with Power, a course at Stanford Graduate School of Business led by Deborah Gruenfeld, a professor of organizational behavior and the author of many articles on the psychology of power and group behavior. This is “the secret language of power” that will help students project authority while remaining true to themselves, says Cox, one of the course lecturers. “It gets labeled as soft skills, but it’s really a hard business driver,” he says. “And there’s hard science underneath it, so we understand how it works. It’s a critical piece of being an effective communicator.”

He shared some of these lessons during an interview with Stanford Business.

You’re Already an Expert

Cox says most people subconsciously rely on nonverbal communication to get through the day. “Just navigating the line at coffee and traffic and walking on public transit, you’re speaking that language of power in negotiating who moves out of the way, what gestures you do, and who takes what seat.”


We have mirror neurons that help us synchronize. If I start smiling a little more, you’re likely going to start smiling.
Richard Cox

For example, consider how a tight knot of people at a cocktail party react when someone new approaches. “That circle is either going to open up and invite that person in, or it’s going to close ranks because it’s not, for whatever reason, OK for that person to enter,” he says. The group reaction is nearly instant and without discussion; they do not hold a vote to determine what to do. “It’s just six or seven people reacting to small verbal cues and nonverbal cues, simultaneously.”

Be the Person You Project

Cox says many people assume acting involves pretending, but actors who are just pretending are usually easy to spot — because they’re not very good. “Acting is about finding a truthful place,” he says. “And when we see that, it’s believable because it’s authentic. Authentic means being in tune with your true emotional state, not something you are ‘putting on.’” The good news is that it doesn’t require you to be anything other than who you truly are. “Everyone can be authentically authoritative, or authentically approachable,” he says. “My authentic authority, my authentic power, is different than yours, which is different than everyone else. But it’s truthful.”

Master the Daily Improvisation

Effective business communication is all about acting and reacting in a sort of emotional feedback loop, Cox says. “Every social cue, every nonverbal behavior, every gesture, is an offer, and then you get to respond to that offer, and that becomes an offer back to me.” Humans are hard-wired for that kind of communication. “We have mirror neurons that help us synchronize. If I just start smiling a little more, you’re likely going to start smiling.” That’s the nature of improv, he says: We’re constantly making it up, all the time. “That’s why it’s a really useful tool, because nobody gets a script to start their day.”

It’s Not Just About Work

The same techniques can improve life at home as well as at the office. Cox cites that moment when you’re about to enter your house after a long day of stress, traffic, and assorted aggravations. He urges people who are returning home from work or school exhausted to spend 30 seconds outside the front door consciously shifting gears. “Think about what’s on the other side of the door — how much you care about them, how you want to show up for them,” he says. “And that will start to change you. You can put a smile on and change your body.” The person who walks through the door is still an authentic, truthful you.


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