When We Play a Part, We Set Ourselves Apart

Updated: Sep 9, 2019

How many different parts do you play at work? How comfortable are you with vulnerability?

A recent conversation with Stefan Bramble, a colleague living and working 10.5 thousand miles away in Melbourne, has really provoked me to question my stance on role-play and behavioural training.

I’m an ex-actor (or as I prefer to call it, ‘a recovering actor’). My training and my career taught me how to play roles, to assume characters and characteristics that were not my own, whilst also attempting to bring authenticity to the part. It’s no mean feat.

In my current role as a training provider, I still work with actors who support some of my interactive and experiential programmes. The intention here is to make role-play simulations feel more real, and help the learners become more absorbed in the activity rather than becoming self-conscious about ‘acting’.

My colleague in Melbourne has a background in clowning, and a fundamental difference between clowning and acting is that one is about anti-performance whilst the other is about performance. This concept of anti-performance has really got me thinking.

I’ve been working with clients on the concept and manifestation of TRUST, recently. Inevitably, we’ve investigated the behaviours and attitudes that contribute to developing and maintaining trust. We can isolate some of these behaviours and, by being mindful of them, we can start to embrace and accommodate them. The hope is that these behaviours will ultimately become habitual. What we are attempting to do is transform ourselves.

Yet, one of the core relationships with trust is vulnerability. Until we truly trust another person, we will be reluctant to lay ourselves bare (emotionally and physically) before them. Clowns understand this. It’s what they do. They lay themselves bare before us; they expose their innermost fears and desires; they allow us to feel their pain and joy because they don’t want to dress it up as anything else other than what it is. In so doing, they make themselves vulnerable to attack, ridicule, and mockery.

How well do we really know our colleagues? We wear so many masks at work, swapping and changing them depending on who we are with or what situation we find ourselves in. These masks allow us to perform a role or an emotional state; they allow us to hide our true feelings from others; they ensure that we can manipulate situations to our advantage, or protect ourselves against perceived threat. But they are all an act.

What would anti-performance look like in your team? What would happen if one day the masks were allowed to fall? What if anxiety, self-doubt and confusion was laid bare for all to see? What if people started being honest about their feelings and their knowledge? What if we were more willing to own up to mistakes, being honest with ourselves and others about how they came about? What if we were much more comfortable saying, “I got it wrong. I’m sorry.”

Whilst we continue to play a part (or numerous parts), we set ourselves apart from our colleagues. We create a barrier between us that works against trust. “How do I know whether what you’re telling me is real?” “Is this how you really feel, or just what you want me to think?” “What part are you playing now?” “Who is the real you?”

A team strengthened by trust is one that can embrace anti-performance. Some people call it ‘not playing politics”, others are happier to call it honesty and integrity. For me, it goes beyond these things: it’s about being comfortable being uncomfortable in the presence of others. It’s about giving people an insight into the questions, turmoil and conflicts inside your head. It’s not about dressing up, but dressing down, and letting us see who and what you really are.

Most teams are a long way from this, but it’s got to be worth a try.

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