“Zoom!” I yelled as I threw an invisible ball to Jay. “Zoom!” he echoed, catching it, then “swish!” as he tossed it to Ann.

Ann repeated Jay’s “swish!” then passed the ball to Tom with a “Pop!”

And the invisible ball continued around the circle.

It may sound like a group of kids playing at recess, but this was actually a Board of Directors at a strategic workshop I led recently.

Activities like this one, borrowed from the world of improv, help teams and individuals increase and improve:




?Listening & awareness

?Nonverbal presence

This is just one of a passel of activities I’ll be leading this Thursday at a workshop I call “Harness the Butterflies: How to Turn Uncertainty & Self-Doubt Into Fuel.”

This workshop is for job-hunting Silicon Valley professionals, though I’ve led similar workshops for groups of all kinds.

The theme is universal. Too many leaders and aspiring leaders are frozen in place by uncertainty.

It turns out there are neuroscientific reasons for this.

The SCARF Model

Dr. David Rock developed a framework, the SCARF Model, to summarize five domains of social experience that draw on the same brain network to maximize reward and minimize threats as brain networks used for primary survival needs:

Status – our relative importance to others

Certainty – our ability to predict the future

Autonomy – our sense of control over events

Relatedness – our sense of safety with others, friend or foe

Fairness – our perception of fair exchanges with people

A perceived threat to any one of these five domains activates similar brain networks as a threat to your life!

In the same way, a perceived increase in any of these five domains activates the same reward circuitry as if someone handed you a pile of cash.

Our Brains Crave Certainty

When you pick up your morning cup of coffee, you expect it to behave in a certain way. If it suddenly behaves in a way you can’t predict — if it feels different, maybe slippery — you immediately pay attention.

As Dr. Rock puts it:

“The brain likes to know the pattern occurring moment to moment, it craves certainty, so that prediction is possible. Without prediction, the brain must use dramatically more resources, involving the more energy-intensive prefrontal cortex, to process moment-to-moment experience.


“Even a small amount of uncertainty generates an ‘error’ response in the orbital frontal cortex (OFC). This takes attention away from one’s goals, forcing attention to the error (Hedden, Garbrielli, 2006). If someone is not telling you the whole truth, or acting incongruously, the resulting uncertainty can fire up errors in the OFC. This is like having a flashing printer icon on your desktop when paper is jammed – the flashing cannot be ignored, and until it is resolved it is difficult to focus on other things. Larger uncertainties, like not knowing your boss’ expectations or if your job is secure, can be highly debilitating.”

Gremlins Are Fueled by Uncertainty

Those voices of self-doubt and self-criticism inside your head? They’re basically a trick, conjured up by your brain, in an attempt to keep you safely inside your comfort zone, so you won’t get hurt or killed.

Because remember, as neuroscience has shown us, your brain perceives a social threat as no different from a threat to your life!

Given those stakes, is it any wonder your brain will do anything—including lie like a rug, and disguise itself as the Voice of Truth, the Voice of Wisdom, and the Voice of Reason—to try and keep you from taking risks?

But the truth is those gremlin voices only pipe up when you start to approach the edge of your comfort zone.

In other words: when you’re growing.

If you let your gremlins drive the bus, you’ll stay stagnant and never grow.

What to Do?

Since uncertainty can be so debilitating, and self-doubt and self-criticism are fueled by it, what is our recourse?

Certainly, it behooves us to minimize uncertainty however we can.

But it’s impossible to eliminate uncertainty.

So it also behooves leaders and aspiring leaders to strengthen our muscles for leaning into uncertainty.

Which is one reason I’m such a big proponent of improv.

Improv performers make up scenes on stage in front of an audience (uncertainty + judgment, which is one of the most high-stakes contexts that exists for the human brain!)

The activities that improv groups use to warm up and build trust have powerful business applications, which is why applied improv is one of my favorite methods in the workshops I lead for organizations.

Applied Improv

Where performance improv culminates in a show, applied improv uses the same games and activities for applied purposes.

With applied improv, the power is in the debrief.

In other words, the power isn’t so much in the activity, but in the questions the facilitator asks after leading the activity, that help participants link the activity to their current work situation, spark insights, and allow participants to connect the dots for themselves.

This is where the magic lies.

When participants physically experience an activity — which might in and of itself be fun and engaging, but outwardly seem to have no relevance to their current situation — and then afterward they experience an “aha” moment during a debrief, because their whole being was engaged, and because the insight can come upon them so suddenly, the impact can be profound.

Because it is so visceral, the learning is typically much longer-lasting, and more impactful, than if they were simply told a piece of information.

Try It Yourself!

Try Sound Ball with your team, but keep in mind, the power is in the DEBRIEF!

Possible questions:

⚽Are you censoring yourself? How?

⚽Did you plan your sounds in advance?

⚽Did you compare your sounds to other people’s?

⚽How is this like work?


?Keep up a fast pace to bypass the censor!

?Be willing to play & look silly yourself​

To speak to me about delivering a session at your company, email me and let’s chat!


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