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The world's a stage

The creative techniques of the professional theatre are helping solve workplace problems at government and blue chip organisations. Theatre director Murray Laing, of management development company Interactive Training, explains how.

An entire industry has grown up around management development.

You can buy ready made courses on team building and leadership, dealing with difficult people, communication, staff selection and assessment. This gives the illusion that ready made courses are the same thing as ready made solutions and ignores the probability that an individual's circumstances are unique.

What invariably happens on these courses is that a charismatic bloke stands in front of a flip chart and does a lot of talking about the things you should do. I believe that for such a course to have any positive effect, you need to believe that being told you are doing something wrong is the same as putting it right.

In anticipation of a deluge of hate mail from management consultants, I should mention at this point that I take no issue with those with a background in sociology or psychology who use their trade glossary to describe human behaviour. But if you actually want to make a difference you need to have the use of certain tools. You cannot after all dig a hole with a tool catalogue.

My background is in the performing arts, as a theatre director and teacher. For the past 20 years I have had a special interest in interactive theatre, where an audience collaborates with the actors and becomes part of a play.

I have seen people from all walks of life communicating freely with each other in an atmosphere of co-operation seen previously only in a drama rehearsal room.

I must stress that these people are not 'acting' - our customers are partners in the process of making a play. They are using the tools of our trade to explore issues that are relevant to them, issues like bullying and management accountability.

One company we have worked with had persistently used traditional training methods in an attempt to get middle management to understand its function - its accountability to head office and its responsibility to junior staff - but to no avail.

We treated a group of trainees and professional actors as if they were all actors in rehearsal, giving them a brief to explore responsibility and accountability.

When they recreated their work situation, the implications of their behaviour revealed themselves with astonishing directness.

The assessment and selfassessment conducted during this activity enabled the client to talk productively with its trainees, a number of whom revealed previously unnoticed management potential.

Workplace bullying is a problem in many industries, not least construction. The cost to businesses of the high staff turnover and absenteeism associated with bullying is widely acknowledged, yet the practice continues.

Our solution is to create forum theatre: a style of performance where a problematic event is enacted before a small audience who can then advise the actors on ways of replaying the scene to achieve a better outcome. We devise first a series of workshops for the trainees to reveal the issues we should include in the script. It is a far cry from the unpopular and embarrassing role play employed by many traditional trainers.

The performing arts offer a set of problem solving strategies that enable people to work cooperatively in pursuit of an intended outcome. A theatre director knows that his or her job is to get everyone working together: to enable them to see things through each others' eyes and take ownership of the shared work. Just telling what to do does not work.

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