Bellingham’s Galen Emanuele uses improv techniques to improve company morale

You can pick your friends but you can’t always pick your co-workers. That’s where Galen Emanuele steps in.

Companies hire Emanuele, 34, to do improvisational theater with their employees. His job is to conduct “improv” games designed to get employees talking to each other more positively.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 13 percent of employees on average are actively engaged in the companies they work for, with the remaining 87 percent not engaged at all. Emanuele says that’s because workplace cultures can be toxic.

“People are afraid to look stupid,” he says. “This makes them react to other’s ideas by shooting them down. But improv teaches you to embrace fear of failure.”

Emanuele started his company, Shift Yes, about a year ago, and plans to expand it to the national market over the next few years. As president, he uses the improv keystone — “yes, and” — in each of his lessons.

“What it means is saying ‘yes’ to whatever the person in front of you throws out, and then add to that,” Emanuele explains.

When improv actors do that on stage, they don’t throw out any ideas but embrace and redirect them.

For example, one of the games Emanuele teaches every client is the “one-word letter.” He sits them down in groups of two and tells them to create a fictional letter, taking turns to add one word at a time. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

“You have to accept what others have to offer,” Emanuele says. “You learn how to live in the present moment and not think about what you’re gonna say next.”

Improv isn’t magic, he says. People don’t have to be witty or funny to do it well; they just have to listen.

Emanuele says one of the most rewarding parts of his job is to see people come out of their shells, sometimes for the first time.

“Giving back and helping people feeds a big part of me,” he says. “It stems from a very personal situation.”

When Emanuele was 18, he was in a car accident with his brother, who was 20 at the time. His brother died.

The other driver fled the scene, and his brother’s insurance company didn’t cover the cost of the funeral or other expenses. That’s when Emanuele decided to dedicate his life to making people’s lives better.

He founded Pass The Hat, an organization that asks for $2 in donations from every member per month to help Whatcom County families who experience sudden tragedy. The organization has nearly 1,400 members, according to its website.

For his efforts with Pass the Hat, Emanuele is being honored Thursday, Dec. 11, as one of the local heroes at the 17th annual Real Heroes Celebration by the Mt. Baker Chapter of the American Red Cross.

When he’s not working with the two companies, Emanuele spends his free time writing a novel and playing guitar, piano and drums.

“I’m never satisfied with just five projects at a time,” he says.

When he works with client companies, he asks for the same level of energy and enthusiasm.

“I get so fired up,” Emanuele says. “I want bosses to realize their employees have so much to offer.”