Kathy Klotz is a business professional, longtime comedian, and the Founder of Keeping It Human where she merges comedy and business to teach industry leaders how to create safe workspaces that function through trust and transparency. 

Listen to this episode (or read the transcript below) to learn how to eliminate shut-up signals so you can continue to foster innovation and big, bold ideas. 

1Can you tell us about your standup comedy? 

I started in stand-up comedy right after college. I was in LA and I got this handbook called the Comedy Bible and I read it ear to ear and I started doing open mic nights and something clicked in me. I couldn’t remember the first three or four times I was up there because it was all a blur but knew I needed to keep going so I kept doing it. There’s something magical about telling your story because comedy is storytelling, and it’s probably the most intimate storytelling you’ll ever hear. 

2What is Keeping It Human? 

Keeping It Human was founded to bring the worlds of comedy and my business background together. There’s a better way to embrace our humanity and our humor and we shouldn’t be ashamed or shy about it. There’s nothing worse to me than having a very crappy culture where you don’t respect people, and then all of a sudden, trying to be funny in your marketing for customers, when you treat your employees like garbage, and I think there’s that disconnect, and comedians have no problem talking about it because it’s all hypocrisy so for me it was all about merging the two worlds to try to find a better way to communicate. 

3How can we come to terms with not knowing all the answers as a leader? 

As leaders, we often feel like we have to have all the answers when in reality we don’t and nobody does and those that we manage probably know we don’t. These are the moments that we can lean into. Instead of pretending like we know everything we can be human and be vulnerable and tell the truth. Those moments are the fundamental encounters that connect us as humans. 

4What does nurturing in a professional team environment look like when it’s done well? 

It’s interesting because I’ve seen a lot of different styles in the world and the consistent outcome that I’ve seen is that your team is willing to say what’s not working and I’ve seen a lot of leaders dismiss it. But if you’re at a point where your team is willing to say, “let’s talk about that”, that may mean that there’s trust. If you have a group of people that are willing to try to fail to know that they can take risks and fail and handle it respectfully, it’s a really good sign that they feel comfortable enough with you because they don’t fear reprisals.

5What can we do to start nurturing trust within our teams? 

It starts with having open conversations about challenges and letting people know openly that it’s okay to fail. Don’t assume that your team even knows what’s safe. Chances are if you’ve never talked about it, they don’t know. You have to normalize those conversations. What does it look like? What’s okay to experiment with? Where are the boundaries? What would be the acceptable risk? What if you’re saying is that experimentation is part of their job? What does that look like? How much of their week can they devote to what? What does the successful measurement look like? Are they responsible for certain KPIs? Or is it okay to just experiment and not expect anything from that? I am willing to bet most of the managers out there have never had that kind of conversation with their team and you have to be able to have these open conversations to be able to nurture trust within your teams. 

6How can we destigmatize failure? 

Intuit for example has what they call these failure parties and I love that they ritualize it because they’re not about the shame of the failure. Instead, they focus on what they learned and their goal with these failure parties is to celebrate the people who took a quantifiable risk. These parties are celebrating the knowledge they’ve gained and highlighting what they’ve learned. When you take away the fear and you celebrate and normalize failure or risk-taking it makes a huge difference.

7What is improv in the workplace and how does it work? 

Improvisation epitomizes what psychological safety is and psychological safety is that sense that people can go out and make mistakes or admit a failure without fear of retribution and we want that in our teams because it’s fundamental to high-performing teams. We all want creativity and when push comes to shove it’s either there or it’s not and improv culture from the early stages is all about psychological safety. 

The kind of psychological safety that we create in our team is exactly the kind of discipline in psychological safety that we need in business teams. It’s no different. This improv mindset of agreeing with your partner and exploring and not tearing down disciplines belong in higher-performing teams. It’s foundational, and more and more people are understanding that. When you feel safe, you’re not afraid to take big risks. We’re all improvisers, we all adapt and pivot every day. Even though we might not call ourselves that everybody in life and business is already improvising.

8How do you integrate these practices into any type of meeting? 

It’s a cultural mindset. As a manager, you have to actively listen and have the mindset that you’re going to listen and create a space when your teammates feel comfortable sharing their feelings. Especially now in the COVID-19 landscape where people can feel the world burning around them. We have to make sure we’re connecting before we move forward with the content of the meeting. Keeping this in mind will be transformative for the culture of your company. 

9How do you create an environment where ideas come to you? 

Normally it’s not that there aren’t any great ideas, it’s that people aren’t listening. They’ve created an unsafe environment and somewhere, people have gotten the message that their ideas weren’t welcomed. People aren’t stupid, when they feel that way the stop sharing their innovations and they stop coming up with new ideas. 

There’s something called shut up signals, and leaders give shut up signals. You can say go innovate, I can say to you, we value innovation here and then five times in the meeting turn around and say that’s a bad idea or that won’t work and then people don’t know if they should listen to the go innovate or the shut up signals. 

10How do you insert more comedy into the workplace? 

Fun is blocked by all these shut up signals, if you’re kind and you’re honest with people, if you’re transparent as a leader and if you value people, and you tell them exactly how they’re going to be measured and then you measure according to the way you said, they will begin to trust you. Trust leads to organic fun. Organizations often wonder why employees don’t show up to staff parties or participate in organizational functions but it’s because they don’t trust so it’s almost impossible to get them to engage. We have to be very honest. If you want fun to flourish you have to respect and be honest with your people so you can create trust because that’s what gives organic fun a chance. 

11How can our readers be a little more playful in their interactions? 

Have an attitude of lightheartedness. If there’s an elephant in the room, don’t just jump right into it. Read the room. Go around the room and ask for one word, let people opt-out, if they’re not feeling it. Mandatory play violates every principle of organic play, let them opt-out. When you create a safe environment, having everyone contribute is key. Maybe you’re building a story one line at a time, and you take time to laugh and connect before diving into the more serious stuff. Let people in the room know that you really care about how they’re doing and be genuine about it. 

12Do you have any tips, tricks, resources, or final words of wisdom for managers or leaders that are looking to get better at their craft? 

Embrace your imperfections, create a safe environment, and take an improv class because it will change how you show up and great leadership starts with how we show up. You don’t have to take yourself seriously all the time and I think when you start to open up and show that side of yourself, it changes the dynamics in the room. Take an improv class, play, make play part of how you show up, connect before content, and make it safe for people to do the same. Really focusing on humanizing yourself as much as possible. And yes, yes, of course, I’m going to say go take a comedy class or an improv class.