Play-acting can help shed inhibitions and create stronger corporate teams.
Had the Bard of Avon lived in these times, he might have called the world in general, and the corporate world in particular, a 'revolving' stage where the settings change constantly, and where one may have to alternate between playing many roles at the same time.
Corporate Theater is a workshop that teaches how to do this effectively, by team building through the medium of theater. After the enthusiastic feedback from my colleagues who had attended the workshop, I was excited to be among the second batch of employees nominated from IBS Software Services for this course conducted by Paul Mathew, Director of the Academy of Transformational Learning, Chennai.
My initial perception that it would be a routine management session with PowerPoint presentations, team-building exercises and some theory on teamwork changed considerably on reading the instructions: 'Participants are advised to wear comfortable clothes that will allow sitting, lying, or rolling on the floor. Along with footwear, participants are requested to leave outside the hall their adult personalities, qualifications, knowledge and experience. Whatever is needed from these can be retrieved on the way back after the workshop.'
The workshop was held in a resort near Thiruvananthapuram. Twenty-eight of us from different project teams and departments shed our designations, age and experience before entering the training room, a large hall lined with mattresses and bolsters. No training material was visible, other than a microphone with speakers.
Paul commenced the session with a short lecture on team building, assuring us that this introductory talk would be the only theoretical part of the session. The rest of the workshop would consist only of team-building games.
He first outlined the four basic principles of transformational learning: o Learning happens best in the child state: In adult mode, one has most of the answers, but very few questions. o No one can train another: Unless the learner chooses to learn, learning does not take place. o One person's knowledge need not be relevant to another: Learning happens best when one gets in touch with one's own inherent wisdom. o Transformation is the most immediate and direct end result of learning: If there is no transformation, there has been no learning.
'In the child state, there is no self-consciousness, ego, fear of social ridicule or any of the other inhibitory walls that we build around ourselves as we grow up and grow older. This kind of freedom from self-consciousness is essential for the learning process,' said Paul.
He continued, 'Learning can happen only when the student wants to learn. Teaching is like the Zen parable of pointing a finger to the moon. The moon's brilliance is there for all to see, and the finger points to it. The finger itself is merely a means for the student to get at the truth.'
'In the medium of theater, an actor has to constantly assume different roles, shedding all of his personal inhibitions, his self-image and ego. Applying the same analogy to corporate team building, we would experience the principles of transformational learning through theater-based exercises. Many of you may want to do theater after this workshop,' he said, as we settled down comfortably on the mattresses.
We started by introducing ourselves to the entire group, with a theatrical gesture, that the group would repeat. 'Observe how the energy of the group changes with the energy level expressed by each participant,' said Paul as people slowly began to thaw, and introduce themselves in manners ranging from the conventional to casual to bizarre.
This was followed by a game that involved communicating various emotions between members of the group. Paul said that the two most effective modes of energizing teams were to have 'joy' and 'wonder' as emotional undercurrents in the team. He cited examples of top corporate firms that kept their employees motivated to deliver very high performances by this method. A few rounds of 'silly' games that grew sillier with each round followed. 'You should lose your dignity and do things that you normally don't do on the streets. The idea is to make you feel comfortable with the entire team.'
We formed two random teams for the next exercise that was one of the most enjoyable parts of the workshop. With very few props or costumes, each team presented an amazing tableau in 30 minutes. Everyone was committed, focussed on the goal, and the results were universally satisfying. Paul had a word of praise for each aspect of the team effort, and pointed out how working in complete harmony contributed to the overall success of the team. I noticed that there were no visible feelings of competition, within the team or between teams. There was only mutual appreciation at the end of the exercise, and it was very genuine. He explained the theory behind this, 'Competition vanishes in front of excellence. The only way to overcome competition is to perform to excellence.' It was something I could fully understand for it was something I had just experienced in such an intense manner, through a simple exercise.
He talked about the teamwork demonstrated by geese that fly in V-formation: o By flying in a V-formation, the whole flock increases the flight efficiency by 71 per cent. o When a goose leaves the formation, he feels the resistance of the air and the difficulties of flying alone. By staying in tune with others going in the same direction, it will be easier to reach the goal. o When the leader goose gets tired, he goes to the end of the V-formation, and another goose takes the lead. To share leadership, there must be mutual respect within the team. o The geese honk to encourage the ones in the front and they maintain the same speed. o When a goose is sick or gets injured, two other geese leave the formation and fly with him to protect him. They remain with him until he dies or is able to fly again, and then join another formation.
Extending the analogy to a corporate team, Paul said: 'Teams are powerful, dynamic entities. They will support the weaker team members. However, if a team member constantly hampers the team's progress due to his lack of commitment, the team will first re-educate, then re-deploy and if these attempts do not work, remove him from the team. The team measures performance not only by competence; the evaluation is also directly related to the team-member's commitment. Team members can have complementary skills that when used effectively, can add a lot of value to the team.' He continued, 'Any team can perform to excellence if the team members are equally committed to the goal and comfortable with each other. Commitment is the most essential quality of an effective team player. Commitment cannot be measured. It is like integrity - you are either committed or you are not.'
The atmosphere was considerably relaxed when lunch was announced. People stretched themselves out on the mattresses and talked informally. After lunch, there were several more rounds of theatre-based exercises that involved team communication through actions and miming. The exercises focussed on basic principles of teamwork like effective communication, body language, creativity and attention to detail that often get overlooked in actual situations.
Though there was some kind of grading, no one really seemed to care which team was leading. Everyone cheered for the outstanding performers. Everyone was doing their best, every team was performing well, everyone was enjoying themselves. It was obvious that everyone felt like a winner. Best of all, it was easy to visualize such a scene in the office, where the teams were similarly committed to the project work, and comfortable with each other.
Paul brings to the workshop his rich and varied experience in the corporate world, the Indian Army, and theater. The workshop is popular with many top corporate firms in India and abroad and continues to spread without advertisement. 'They find that the training helps their employees bond into high performing power teams. Some firms actually have photographs of senior managers playing the silly games put up in their offices, to convey that they too are part of the team. Others have devised strategies for improving interpersonal communication like 'Talk to me' badges.'
At the end of the day, most of the participants felt that the workshop had been a truly transformational experience. 'Everybody in the company should do this course for it to be really effective,' said Anna, my colleague. Like many others, I felt totally relaxed, having laughed long and hard during the day. Learning had never been so much fun in the corporate world.
Everyone sang together loudly as we drove back to office. As the company coach neared the Technopark campus, someone joked that we had better 'put on' our designations again. A statement that showed how much we had shed of our stiff corporate identities in the footloose spirit of the workshop.
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