Theater-Based Training Can Improve Performance of Managers, Teams

By Katti Gray Apr 19, 2010
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The challenge confronting Miriam John, then a vice president at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif., was clear and quite concerning.

“I had a nerdy physicist across the table from a nuts-and-bolts engineer who builds things. He looked over at the scientist and said, ‘I don’t know why I’m here; I’ll never have a need to work with you.’ Straight out. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” said John, recollecting the confrontation.

As she proceeded to supervise what was to be a collaborative group of Sandia employees, the uncensored engineer’s hesitation did abate, but not without an intensive exercise in breaking down the walls that sometimes keep workers from clarifying and communicating their message while pursuing their shared goals cooperatively.

To help tunnel through those barriers, Sandia enlisted corporate coach and college professor Mark Rittenberg, a former actor and director who uses theater tools and techniques to push people, from top and mid-level managers to rank-and-file employees, to expose aspects of their personal lives that likely affect how they function in the world, particularly on the job.

“One person talked about losing her mother when she was, like, eight, nine years old and what a profound effect it had on her, and how her dad had to raise [her],” said John, citing some of what transpired during Rittenberg’s convention-bending “Curtain Up/Curtain Down” workshops at Sandia. “We were all crying with her. In the corporate cultures I deal with,, there’s this automatic, ‘Oh, I don’t want to touch that kind of thing; that touchy-feely is not for us.’ But it helped forge some of the strongest relationships.”

The aforementioned engineer and physicist also were transformed by the workshops, added John, now a private consultant to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “The engineer put the instruments the scientist developed on an unmanned aerial vehicle. They ended up becoming really good friends.”

Shining the Light

Spotlighting the sheer humanity of workers can lead to similar effects, boosting morale, productivity and simple joys in the workday, said Rittenberg, faculty director of the theater-based Active Communicating program in the Executive Coaching Institute of the University of California in Berkeley’s Haas Business School. (See video clip: University of California—Berkeley Center for Executive Education.)

“This is the actor’s bible that we’re taking pages from,” he said. “The parallel is that the everyday workplace, the meetings with people, with teams, the coaching of them [requires] a certain skills set, along with empathy, compassion and power of intention. In other words, what is it that you’re intending for this meeting, this project? It’s a question we ask every actor before he acts on stage. What are you saying in that line? Very often, in the beginning, he doesn’t know. He has to dig in and find out.”

In like fashion, leaders of companies sometimes “lose sight of the plot,” added Rittenberg, a coach for roughly 30 years. “They work on too many squares and too many charts and do not get in there often enough as a human being in ways that can make a difference.”

Active Communicating, which incorporates the Curtain Up/Curtain Down workshop, hones leaders’ abilities to improvise and be spontaneous and teaches them that vocal tone and body language also have their impact. “We’re talking about truly communicating instead of intellectualizing about topics and creating a population of people who are able to relate to other people. These exercises take them right out of their comfort zone into the work of the heart,” Rittenberg said.

An exercise might begin with asking your workshop partner, someone who might be a complete stranger to you, “something like, ‘What is the origin of your name?’ That is a very, very profound question,” said Rittenberg, whose international client base includes federal agencies and technology, banking and fashion firms. “From there, all kinds of stuff happens. We make them answer the questions: What would you like to work on for yourself today? What is your communication goal? What is your goal for the team? What can you do to sabotage it? What do you want to be remembered for?”

In addition to staging of personal monologues during the workshops, a discussion of tribal characteristics that anthropologists have noted help them manage to survive is thrown into the mix, Rittenberg said. Not only must the worker show up for workplace duty, but she also must be present fully. “If the company is going down the tubes, do you come in at 7 a.m. and give it your all?” Rittenberg asked. “If I’m clear-hearted, I’m going to stay with the Titanic until it goes down. … I’m not going to cross the room and speak against you to other people. That is weak-heartedness and third-party conversation.”

Tell the truth without blame or judgment, Rittenberg said, citing another tenet espoused by Active Communicating. Also, “Be open to the outcome but not attached to [it]. You can be open to an outcome because you can be open to new ways of being. You can be open to things coming out differently. This work is bottom-line work. It is taking risks and chances that, hopefully, benefit the company in exponential ways—unless there are other problems, unless the leaders are the wrong people for the job in the first place.”

“I was an offender,” said Tom Bagwell, head of education and training for Peterson Construction, referring to his breach of those tenets. “I realized that when I was telling people I was listening, I really wasn’t listening; I was figuring out what I would say [next]. How often are we engaged in some other activity when people are trying to present some information and we treat them like serfs?”

Peterson, home to Caterpillar Inc.’s West Coast operations, has measured its return on investing in Active Communicating by tracking what Bagwell calls the obvious metrics—reduced turnover and increased productivity. More representative, however, was when, “after the training, some employees went to the head of the company and said, ‘Who stole my boss? My new boss is asking me questions and cares about what I say.’ What’s the measure of that? When you don’t have to spend time working the friction issues between people—because they’ve built relationships and care about each other’s success—now you can focus on the work. It’s quite the cathartic endeavor.”

“It’s a very empowering methodology,” said Nicola Gambolik, managing director of Johannesburg, South Africa-based Converse Consultant and Management Services, which has partnered with Rittenberg. In a nation still writhing post-apartheid toward a diverse workforce, being engaged authentically is paramount, she said. “It tries to bring people’s experience and capacity to the fore. People find the process affirming, and with that comes an energy and engagement that can be replicated and aligned with a company’s objectives.”

Katti Gray is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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