Management as Performing Art
We must expand our understanding by seeing management as a daily performance—with a script that is constantly changing.
Management has been defined as “the art of getting things done through people” by no less an authority than the American Management Society. We know this, we acknowledge it to be true, but when push comes to shove, the “art” part leaves us feeling uncomfortable. It seems too “squishy,” too imprecise. We want to think we can control what goes on in organizations by applying our knowledge, skills and abilities to produce results. So we turn to the social sciences like psychology or sociology to give us the data that enables us to make “reasoned” or “informed” choices and decisions based on empirical “facts.”
This probably says more about our own biases than it does the practice of management. After decades of studying managers and the practice of management, the one thing I’ve learned is that there is no “one best way” or “universal principles.” Give me a “law of management” and I’ll find a manager or an organization doing the exact opposite and being wildly successful. Take Steve Jobs. By some accounts, he was mercurial, impetuous, arrogant and abusive toward employees—characteristics very few management experts would recommend. Yet Apple thrived under his leadership.
That’s because (as I’ve suggested before in this publication) management is far more art than it is science. So it seems appropriate, in this issue devoted to the arts and business in central Illinois, to look at management as a performing art and see what we can learn from adopting the artistic view. I have been helped greatly in this by my lovely daughter, who is a musical theater major, studies the actor’s craft, and has shared some of her insights with me—ideas that have affected how I view the practice of management. Here, then, are three “things to know” from the theatrical performing arts that can enhance our understanding of the practice of management.
- Know your objective. Onstage, everything a character does is to elicit something from someone else—a verbal response, an action, or even just information. When doing their homework on a character, actors write their objectives in the following manner: “I must get [Person X] to [do this].” In developing their objectives, the actor must consider the super-objective (what is the goal for the overall play), the scenic objective (what is the goal in this scene), the unit objective (what is the goal for this element of the scene) and beats (usually denoted by changes in subject).
This concept has real significance for the practice of management. Often, we know our super-objective; it may be given to us by the corporation (increase sales growth, reduce expenses) or by our function in the enterprise (develop our human resources, design innovative products and services). But how many managers can divide their work up into “scenes” (What is my goal for this month? This week? This project?) or “units” (What is my goal for this meeting? What do I want the customer to do as a result of this sales call?). And most managers are so awfully busy that there’s not time to even consider our objective for the various “beats” we encounter on a daily basis (What is my goal for this discussion with this employee? How do I want my employee to react to this email?)
As managers we know that we need to have objectives (the things we need to get done). There is even a school of thought called “Managing by Objectives,” or MBO, that continues to be taught. But we rarely take time to break down the objectives in enough detail to enable us to concentrate our efforts on the specific situation. We manage with an eye toward the big picture, but lose the specific situation. The result is inefficient management: too many people simply reacting to the moment without a sense of the larger scene—the industry and organization in which we operate. How much more effective we would be as managers if we took time to establish goals for the various levels of situations we encounter in organizational life!
- Know your tactics. On stage, tactics are what characters use in pursuit of their objectives. Tactics are usually described with verbs, and then are assigned to each line of the play. Actors typically write out a tactic for each line in the format “If I [verb] the other person, then they will [verb].” For example, “If I inspire this person, she or he will burst into song.” Tactics fall into four categories: (1) percussive tactics, such as “needle” or “bombard”; (2) vibrate tactics, such as “excite,” “shake up” or “dazzle”; (3) compress tactics, such as “calm” or “crush”; and (4) suspend tactics, such as “elevate” or “inspire.” The essential point is that everything done on stage is in pursuit of the objective; therefore, tactics will vary depending on the situation, the response received from the other person, and the objective.
Imagine how effective managers might be if they adopted the actor’s insights into tactics. For example, what if managers really understood the different forms of tactics? If they challenged themselves to think: Which type of approach should I take in this situation? Should I be directive (percussive) and aggressive with this employee? How can I shake up the organization and get people excited about this opportunity (vibrate)? Perhaps our organization has been through a difficult time recently… is it time to create a sense of calm (compress)? Or, do the people in my group need to be inspired or encouraged to reach new heights of performance (suspend)? If managers could learn to vary the tactics, it might be possible to produce better responses from employees.
The difficulty many managers have is that they believe they only have one type of tactical approach or managerial style (and unfortunately, many of those managers are right). We don’t often take time in our managerial practice to reflect, analyze and evaluate the situation, so we fall back on the tactics we’re comfortable with, which may not be best for our people or organization. It’s far too easy to make excuses for our poor performance (“I’m just not a very inspirational person” or “I’m a Type-A personality; I’ll never be calm”) than to recognize that to be really effective we need to learn new tactics so we can adjust to the people and the situation, while still achieving our objectives.
- Know your “other.” On stage, the “other” is your scene partner. An actor must maintain a constant connection with his or her other, as well as observe how the tactics are affecting the other. The other can cause the actor to change tactics and in extreme cases, the objective. Relationships between characters are key when choosing tactics.
Managerially, this seems intuitively obvious; after all, it is still getting things done through people, so of course, we know that the people matter. But honestly, how many managers really maintain a constant connection with the people managed? And how many managers are really aware of how their tactics are affecting their people? If we’re honest, we’re all too often bogged down worrying about the objectives (the stuff we need to get done) and we fail to really consider our people. For the actor, however, the “other” is critical, because how the other reacts to the actor determines how the scene unfolds, the tactics used, and even at times the objective.
On stage, the actor must be constantly aware of the others in the scene. How are they responding? What is their objective in this scene or situation? What type of tactics will elicit the response I need for this scene to be effective? If managers could learn this technique, the results would likely be astonishing. Unfortunately, too many managers are “me”-oriented rather than focused on others. We know what our goals are, what we have to get done, what will produce the best outcomes for us and our career. Thanks to this self-centric view, we lose awareness of the other, and often cannot effectively lead others to produce the results we need.
As managers, we are all actors in the great economic “play,” in the “scene” of our own businesses. We need to expand our understanding of management by seeing what we do as a daily performance with a script that’s constantly changing. However, the managerial imperative to produce results through the efforts of others should drive us to carefully consider the concepts essential to success as an actor:
- Know your objectives—at all levels.
- Know your tactics—and be able to
- change as needed.
- Know your other—and make a greater attempt to understand your people than you expect them to make to understand you.
The organizational stage is set. You understand your role. How’s your performance going to be today? iBi