The Power of Attitude and Tone: Why “Yes, and” Matters

Dramatic Impact

Theater and the creative process of design

A column by Traci Lepore
July 21, 2014

We’ve all experienced some negative moments—when we don’t think we can achieve some goal or a challenge seems too hard to take on. Or maybe, we just feel like we’re in a slump and are finding it hard to stay motivated. It’s easy to let moments like these get the best of us. Sometimes, our first reflex in such a situation is just to say, “No!” The problem, when that happens, is that our attitude can quickly spread to everyone around us. And that kind of negative attitude is destructive to any team.

“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”—Winston Churchill

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These days, as UX professionals, we work in such collaborative environments. We follow agile or lean methods. So the strength of our work relies heavily on the strength of the team. As the UX people on any team, we play a critical role in bridging different sides of the story together. This role, by its very nature, makes us leaders, whether we want to be or not. That means people will look to us for guidance—and not just on the user experience. Therefore, we always need to remember that we have are responsible for setting and maintaining the tone and attitude of the team. If we want to be good leaders and set good examples as UX professionals and team players, we need to have a positive attitude—that is, a “Yes, and” kind of attitude. This kind of attitude is essential to improvisational theater, too.

What Is the “Yes, and” Attitude?

When improvisational theater is good, it is pure magic. This epitomizes the lesson that a product is only as strong as the team that has created it. And teams are strong because they have mastered the most basic and critical tenet of improvisational theater: the “Yes, and” philosophy. When we live up to this philosophy, no matter what challenge our work presents to us, we accept it—and to keep the work moving forward, we add to or change it. But we do not negate, reject, or disrespect what our work presents to us.

Notice that I did not say this means that we cannot say “No” to something. We certainly don’t want to create a culture of yes men. Instead, living the “Yes, and” philosophy means to think of how to take what we’re given and create a solution from it. If your instinct is to say “No,” instead, come up with an alternative and propose it. This is how you can keep the energy flowing and moving forward. As we gain forward momentum, that momentum is the thing that drives us toward achieving our goals. Don’t let the energy die, because once it does, your team will get stuck.

Think of positivity like this: If you and another actor began an improvisation and you said, “That’s a pretty bird on your shoulder,” and the response you got back was, “There is no bird on my shoulder,” where could you go? The momentum would essentially grind to a halt—not to mention that there is a serious risk that this kind of response would damage the relationship’s trust and collaboration. The next time you worked together, you might fear putting forward the first idea, which would stop you from participating. It’s the same in a design collaboration. What a shame it would be for the team to lose out on possibly great ideas and insights! Especially if this feeling spread, and you had a team on which no one wanted to share ideas.

Creating a “Yes, and” Attitude

There is a distinctly different kind of power attached to a “No” versus a “Yes.” “Yes” builds camaraderie, generates energy, drives momentum, and stimulates creativity. On the other hand, “No” breeds discontent and frustration and impedes a team’s coming up with creative solutions and achieving true collaboration. A “No” attitude can even instill a desire for revenge the next time around, in a participant who felt blocked by someone else.

No team that cultivates a “No” culture can have the successful, innovative outcomes they really want. I’ve seen negative attitudes tear teams apart. Instead, the kind of power that you want is that which instills a desire to see everyone succeed—where everyone feels safe sharing ideas and does not fear the shame of failure. This is the power of “Yes!”

Each of you should feel that the “Yes” attitude has to start with you. It is key that you set an example for the behavior that you expect from others. As I said earlier, your team will look to you, as a UX professional, to help set this tone.

Here are some simple steps that will lead you toward developing a “Yes” attitude. I have broken them into four categories:

  • Start small. Take little steps toward your goals.
    • Try one new thing each week. It can be as simple as going to a new place for lunch or shopping at a new store.
    • Say “hello” to people. Greet and engage with your team.
    • Try to say “yes” to something to which you would normally say “no”—even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
    • Add an arbitrary challenge to a task to force you to think outside the box. For example, how would you eat your cereal if you did’t have a bowl? This does’t have to be a difficult challenge—or even a real challenge that you would have to deal with in the end. But setting up such challenges will make you think more creatively.
  • Listen, listen, and listen some more.
    • Sometimes you learn the most when you just keep quiet and listen until someone else has finished talking. Only then should you circle back with your questions. At the end, your questions may be very different from those you may have interjected.
    • Play dumb. Always consider yourself to be in the role of an apprentice, learning whatever it is that you are doing at the moment. You will gain many more insights into the workings of others’ minds if you do.
  • Practice emulating what you want to be. You know the saying “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” right?
    • Psych yourself up before engaging with a team or crowd. I do this by pacing and listening to music. Both get my blood pumping and my energy going. This helps me to step into my on-stage personality.
    • Take on the persona of someone who has a skill that you admire. Use this as a way of working toward gaining that skill yourself or figuring out how you would make that skill comfortable for you.
    • Engage with people who challenge you. The path toward personal growth is open only if you challenge yourself.  
  • Conquer your fear.
    • When you want to say “no” purely out of fear, being aware of and understanding this will help you to move forward and say “yes.” If you know that illogical fear is the reason behind your negativity, it can help you to set your fear aside.
    • Ask yourself, “Will any small children die if I do this?” This is one way to help you understand whether your fear is rational.
    • Understand that mistakes are something we can learn from. They can be the beginning of something great. They don’t have to be the end of something bad.

By working through these steps, in addition your helping to create a positive attitude for your team, you will reap some benefits for yourself. Playing with ideas always involves opportunities to learn new things. This does’t mean any new idea will provide the solution, now or ever, but it may help your thinking in the future. Or it may lead you to a truly innovative idea. You will experience the exhilarating high that comes from the adrenaline rush of leaping into the unknown and being open and vulnerable. And I promise that high is one that will become addictive to you. You will develop deeper connections with people, and that is a gratifying feeling. And above all, you will be inspired! Who does’t want to feel inspired in their work? That is really invigorating!

What a “Yes, and” Attitude Gets Your Team

If everyone on a team worked at creating such a positive culture, you would have a team that

  • can solve problems effectively together, working toward common goals
  • is friendly and approachable—in other words, people would want to work with them and would consider them to be truly collaborative
  • cares about the quality of the work that they’re producing and wants to find the best answers to problems
  • has an infectious, positive aura
  • shares ideas freely—without hesitation or fear
  • is truly engaged in the process and committed to improving it

This sounds like a dream team, does’t it? Just imagine what you could do with that team! And how much fun being part of that team would be. The possibilities are endless when you harness the power of the uplifting, can-do, “Yes, and” attitude.

The ideas that I’ve presented in this column earn’t original or ground breaking. They have been around for ages because they work. As individuals and teams, we have the ability to make these ideas work if we try. Then we can create our own form of magic!

“Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”—Thomas Jefferson 

Principal User Experience Designer at Oracle

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Traci LeporeWith over fifteen years of experience as an interaction designer and user researcher, focusing on user-centered design methods, Traci has experienced a broad range of work practices. After ten years of consulting, Traci transitioned to working on staff with product teams at companies such as Avid and Oracle. Through her UXmatters column, Dramatic Impact, Traci shares how she infuses aspects of theatrical theory and practice into her design practice to bring a more empathetic, user-centered focus to her work. Traci holds an M.A. in Theater Education from Emerson and a B.S. in Communications Media from Fitchburg State College. She is a member of the Boston chapters of UXPA and IxDA and has spoken at conferences such as the IA Summit and Big Design. She is also a nominee for the 2016 New Hampshire Theatre Awards in the best supporting actress category.  Read More

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