Ralf Wetzel: 'Connection Takes Courage'

Ralf Wetzel: 'Connection Takes Courage'
Ralf Wetzel, Professor Organization & Applied Arts at Vlerick Business School, grew up under a communist regime. Twenty years of suppressing emotions and keeping a straight face resulted in burn-out and a depression. An improv theater class turned his life upside down. Now he puts his findings into business. ‘You can find treasures.’

On stage in a theater, Ralf Wetzel feels most at ease. It is not a coincidence that he deliberately asked for the photography to take place at the Théâtre L’Improviste in Brussels. Afterwards he spoke with Jurgen van Weegen, partner at Kearney, about the path of a boy who grew up under a communist regime to becoming Professor Organization & Applied Arts at Vlerick Business School.

Can you walk us through your background and how you carved your path towards improvisation in a work environment?
‘I was born in East Germany, in 1971. I grew up under a communist regime. My father was an entrepreneur and my mother was a Protestant teacher. Which, under the given ideological conditions, was the worst possible combination. We knew there were spies around watching the family and trying to find mistakes, to shut down the business. So, I was literally inhaling the family doctrine of not letting anyone know what I think or feel. I learned the act of stonewalling: No-one could read me. That was important for the 20 years I lived under these conditions, but became an awful hindrance afterwards, since still, no-one could read me. At a certain point, even I did not know what I was feeling, there was a strong disconnection from my emotional world. That brought a lot of misery, both privately and professionally, which eventually led to burn-out ten years ago.
The fall of the Berlin Wall changed almost everything. I was an electro-mechanic and was studying Business Administration. By chance, I met a very inspiring mentor. He ignited my curiosity for  discovery, for academic research and my passion for social science. By joining his institute, I experienced a creativeness and work flow I had never had before. Coincidentally, I took on a managerial role at a University in Switzerland and coincidentally moved on to Belgium later on. Uncoincidentally, I slid into burn-out and depression there, however, again as luck would have it, I found myself at an improvisation theater class, right in the middle of my depression. And it turned my life upside down.’

An improvisation theater class is not necessarily a life-changing event for everyone. Why was it for you?
‘What drove me into depression was me being disconnected from myself and unreadable to others. I was frustrated about my life conditions and could not express to friends and family how I actually felt. At work, I was confronted with a very different way of teaching. The students did not believe what I had to say, which made me nervous, and on top of that, students even started to imitate my nervous behavior during classes. It made me feel like a wounded gazelle in front of a streak of young tigers. It was terrifying and since I gradually started to withdraw from my surroundings, it led to even more disconnection.
Now, in improv class, the first thing I learned was to trust the impulses coming from your body rather than the ones coming from your panicking mind. Your body is your best friend: It is always there, the breath is always there. Whenever you cannot trust your panicking mind, you can always connect with the emotional world and your impulses within. This is a hidden but continuous guidance when your mind is messed up. This made me realize the importance of developing an internal sense of safety.
The second thing I learned is that the strongest source for psychological and emotional safety in moments of shock or surprise is not a cognitive concept, or any slides that I have prepared, but it is my partner. In improvisation theater, when the players go on stage unprepared and start playing a story that is being developed on the spot, they carefully observe their partner and the audience. When your partner starts to panic, the only thing you need to do is make them feel safe in your hands, so they regain their confidence and reconnect with the other players. The same thing happens vice versa. When I get anxious on stage, I can trust that everyone will observes me empathically, and do everything they can to make me feel safe again. This was a real game changer. In this very first improv training, I realized: I do not need to be afraid of unexpected, hostile situations, since there are always two sources that I can rely upon: My own body and the unwavering emotional support of others. That showed me how to completely alter the way I was dealing with anxiety as a teacher, and it opened a door to get out of a stuck situation in my private life.’

So you had this personal journey, and at some point realized this is a generic problem in your work field. How did you go from personal lessons to seeing this as a relevant topic for leaders in many organizations?
‘Firstly, it affected my way of teaching. I shifted from my way of working, I have something to say, this is my learning objective, those are my slides, to starting where the class is. If needed, you literally drop everything you had prepared, and be ready to go into an unknown place, which is necessary to establish the connection required for teaching. Like on an improv stage the call is: ‘Read the room first, be present!’, start from there and not from what you have in mind. You might be fearful to go there, but it creates a connection that the on-going collaboration will immensely support.
While I was revamping my didactics accordingly, I realized that what I have been learning on an improv stage, is actually what is constantly happening in the boardrooms. The amount of uncertainty and surprise on an improv stage is as high as in disruptive situations in boardrooms, with the pandemic just being the last and overwhelming example. People on an improv stage are able to make high-speed, high-quality decisions, not only in the moment of surprise and discontinuity. Improvisers create decisions that are driven by these conditions. They are able to create a product, and the audience actually pays to watch that product being developed. Meaning: A condition that we typically shy away from like uncertainty, discontinuity, or shock is in fact the core material improvisers draw their products from. From this I concluded that we need to change our approach to these conditions, and that professional improvisation can greatly help in learning how to capitalize on them. The ground rules are fairly simple. It is about encountering your partner with empathy, being present with him/her, taking risks (speak your truth), allowing yourself to let yourself be changed by your partner and you try to make your partner look good. These are the key mechanisms of emotional safety, of making someone else feel being seen, of human connection.’

How do you translate this to a business environment? Are these ground rules even there?
‘Although these ground rules are almost innate human capabilities and thus essential, they are hard to find in business contexts. Especially under uncertainty, surprise and shock, there is anxiety, withdrawal from each other and highly protective, conservative behavior. Nobody wants to get caught making mistakes when there is fear in the room. But when high-quality, high speed decision-making is necessary, I can step in and say: ‘Hey, there is a different way of collaborating.’ In both improv and high-speed decision-making you can make someone feel comfortable by using the principle of “Yes, and…”. It means: I accept what comes from my partner, it inspires me, I will develop it further, and I will give it back. By that you give your partner the feeling that you have listened, that you want to work with whatever your partner brings to the table and you want to go with him or her.
When you introduce that idea of working together, the disbelief and reluctance are huge at first, because we are not used to that way of collaborating, especially in business. In the corporate world, complete ideas are usually rejected by what is not working and people, being afraid of the unknown, will therefore rather come up with their own ideas. There is hardly any confidence that I am going to step into an open-ended-process with someone I do not trust enough. Professional improvisation teaches you to step away from focusing on what does not work, and build upon what does. If you agree on some things, you do not need to believe every single thing. You build, and you give your partner the feeling of having really listened. I am not defensive or trying to keep you at a distance, I am not selling only my own idea, I am willing to go where you are, and build something together from your starting place. That, in my experience, changes the way people collaborate dramatically. You trigger a highly soft, yet solid creative process that is based on the mutual exchange of empathy, and looking for things that work. You reconnect with our intuition, and realize: ‘Hm, I never thought about that. But it is a nice idea, and it reminds me of this and this.’ This again can lead to a mutually reinforcing positive spiral that for whatever reason we have unlearned. The point is: If you can make people feel safe in your hands, they will explore an unfamiliar situation with you and realize, just like you, that you are both on an exciting journey of discovery.’

So when you give a masterclass for executive teams and want to show what improvisation can mean for decision-making, how do you put that into practice?
‘I do a couple of improv exercises in which they experience what kind of stories you can develop. It is essential to create a safety net for the group, in which it is okay to fail and to feel uncomfortable. Then they train this improvisational collaborative mindset, not by thinking, but by experimenting. Next we put it into corporate situations that students or participants bring to us, we call that “playstorming”. Usually I ask at the end of the session if they want more of this in their corporate lives. The answer is always “yes”, because suddenly, collaboration is fun, and there is a sense that there is a treasure out there in the unknown, itching to be discovered.’

That is a stark contrast to current corporate situations, right? People seem, as you say, anxiety-driven, even hindered by it. What has made that anxiety so dominant in our minds in these environments?
‘I think it has to do with the rhetoric and perception of what a good manager or leader is. The classic understanding is that a good leader is omnipotent, strong, constantly in control and able to decide at any moment. If you do not know what is happening, you keep your calm and pretend everything is under control. And here we are again: The disconnection between how you feel, and how you present yourself. We end up pretending that everything is alright. We are indoctrinated by this hero-like, masculine (and my grown-up daughters would righteously add: patriarchal) idea of leadership, which prevents us from looking at a situation as it truly is. It also prevents us from removing all the masks we wear so protectively: This is where we are at, and this is how I feel about it. That tradition of being strong and having everything under control, being the person overlooking everything, is just not working anymore. It will take a while to change this perspective, but one concept that is crucial to me in this is courage. Courage comes about when you feel safe to speak your truth in a certain situation. That brings me to a simple leadership concept that I enjoy: “Make somebody else feel safe to speak his or her truth, and be the first one to follow this person.” I believe a leader should not necessarily storm ahead and show how courageous he or she is. That, to me, is not creating a culture of courage. The job of a leader nowadays is to be sensitive to those who use pattern-breaking thinking, and to make them stronger, in other words: To follow them. So, search for these people. They are everywhere. And make them feel safe to speak up and when they do: Support, support, support. And add and build and “Yes,…and” the heck out of yourself.’

Another topic related to this, is your concept of the clown, how does that fit into this story?
‘The clown, to me, is the last representative in a modern and economized world of being imperfect and insanely human. We laugh about the clown when he fails and shows his/her imperfections. That is the moment the audience connects with the clown, because at the end of the day, they are as imperfect as that clown. The clown gives the audience the freedom to say: “Yeah, I am messing things up like he is: I got up late. I forgot half of my stuff for work. I keep forgetting how to unmute myself on Zoom.” The clown says: This is the normality, not the exception. Business and collaboration at work would be much more fruitful if we could just step away from this shiny fake behavior of being cool, flawless, successful, in control and always able to make the right decisions. Because we are not. The clown gives us a doorway to a much more human and truthful view of how we work and gives us a sense of what would happen if we could remove all those masks and take a genuine interest in who we are actually working with again.
The second thing I learned from clowns is that they do not shy away from problems or mistakes or try to cover them up like we all do. No, they stay with them, make them bigger, explore them until at the very end they find a solution which is surprising to both the clowns and the audience. We have lost track of how to enter an open-ended discovery process, we have forgotten how to trust and respect the process of human collaboration – because we are afraid of the embarrassment of failure.
Hence, what improv, clowns and modern performing arts in general teach us is to really let yourself be impressed by whatever is out there, and work together on what you discover, whether you may like it or not. You learn to trust your impulses, your own embodied wisdom and those of your partners. It creates a much more relaxed state of mind. It gives the courage to connect and plunging even deeper into a place beyond your control. But you can be certain that, if you stick together and allow yourself to be altered by your partner constantly, you will find treasures that you never would have seen if you had run away. In the end, they teach us to nurture connections with our partner as much as those with our own inner emotional world, as the source of emotional safety and of a blissful life.’

This article was published in Management Scope 03 2022.

This article was last changed on 09-03-2022