The Magic of Dependability

Last night, I was a talking cat. Complete with a feline smile, kneading my paws, and licking my fur — all while speaking to a human who was trying to adopt me. I went on later and was a police officer, the mother of a bride named Giselle, and yes, even was endowed as Jesus.

Not much is sacrosanct in my improvisational theatre class.

Each Tuesday evening here in Homer, a cast of characters congregate to explore the edges of improv. The usual suspects are a retired schoolteacher, a PA, two potters, a research boat owner, a nurse, a high school student, a medical doctor, a barista, fisherman, a mediator, and me. All different ages and backgrounds sharing a commonality – the burning desire to play, build scenes and characters, and laugh.

If you haven’t seen improv theatre in action, it works this way. An actor gets a suggestion from the audience and in a specified format – for example, a scene using only questions – you develop a credible roll-out of a story. At first, it feels scary and impossible. But just like most things, there’s a scaffold for successful improv scenes.

One basic premise is for actors to say “YES” to every offer of any actor. And I mean every offer. You stay in the present moment, listen to your partner, and build on her suggestion. It sounds something like this:

  • “I’m tired of being grounded by mom, Sis.”
  • “Me too! Let’s run away from home.”
  • “Yes, that will show her that we are our own people.”
  • “Absolutely! And let’s ask her to pack a lunch for us.”

The magic of improv is how scenes are built one offer at a time and how actors must depend on and reference everything they are going to say based on the previous offer. The actors fully count on one another to develop a viable scene or else, it fizzles.

Of Course, It Got Me Thinking

It got me thinking about how dependability gets overlooked as a crucial ingredient for life and work.

We all know what it’s like when a co-worker or friend doesn’t deliver her assignment on time when we are intimately tied to the completion of it. We often panic that there won’t be enough time for us to complete the task, blame the other person for being a slouch or way too busy or disorganized, or wonder why we haven’t heard from said person in two weeks. It’s mammalian.

We Thrive on Dependability

Simply put, dependability is being able to count on one another.

Our mammalian neurobiology quests for safe relational connections. Babies and mothers gaze and coo at one another to gain a secure attachment. Most of us two-legged mammals seek out relationships with true others. You know who they are. These are folks who welcome us warmly, listen intently, offer goodwill even when we screw up, comfort us, bring out our best, and yes, are dependable. They show up for us. And with any luck at all, we show up for them.

As in, we are consistent. We are reliable. We are dependable. We are trustworthy.

When we have this safe, trusting relationship with another whether a friend, colleague, or partner, we get a sense of calm, kindred, and engaged connection. In the mammalian world, this lands us on our top neural state (ventral vagus state for those of you who care to don your science glasses). Here, we experience our strongest well being. Everywhere. Work. Home. Gym. Improv Class.

Dependability is a Predictor at Work

When Google (even those of us who live under a rock know them) conducted a study of 180 work teams, they identified dependability as the #2 predictor for team effectiveness. Not personality traits, not team size or co-location, not seniority. Dependability. (Itching to know #1?)

This tells us that team members perform better when they can rely on one another to complete quality work on time. It’s when teammates step up, own their assignments, and embrace how their work connects to others’ tasks and the team’s goals. In other words, not shirk their responsibilities and drone on how procrastination is in their genetic code.

So How Do You Grow Dependability?

  • Words and Actions Must Match. One of the greatest enemies of trust is saying one thing and doing the opposite. As a parent, perhaps you’ve preached to your kids the dangers of alcohol while pouring yourself another glass of red wine. Have you noticed how your nervous system gets rankled when you smell hypocrisy? Theirs do too.
  • Over-communicate Changes. OK, you can’t make the report deadline because you’re sporting a head wound from the weekend’s lumberjack festival. Let your teammates at work know immediately. And then, make a clear and concrete plan how and when to wrap it up (the report, not your head).
  • Uphold Accountability. Build in a team norm or family norm to hold each other accountable for work, words, and actions. Set reasonable expectations and timelines however also treat one another as if you are all capable people. Allow folks to step up. In tandem, put a hold on your own over-functioning– taking others’ responsibilities away from them to build up your own identity and self-worth.

The Magic of Dependability

Let’s face it. When dependability is present in any team, friendship, or partnership, it’s barely noticed. Yet when it’s not perceptible, our neurobiology gets pinchy.

For me in improv class, I’ll continue to depend upon my counterparts to use crazy and not so-crazy suggestions to create credible scenes together. Maybe next class they will endow me as a climbing guide on Mt. Kilamanjaro, or a Russian ballerina, or a rabbit getting ready for Easter.

Either way, I know our dependability will feel like magic. I hope yours will, too.

Warm Spring Wishes,