acting, business schools, leadership, self-awareness

To Be or Not to Be: That is a Business Question

Posted Jun 13, 2013 by Hult Labs

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts.

-William Shakespeare

Whether we’re students or professionals or both, we wear many hats during the course of a day—and a massive, countless number more during the stretch of a career and lifetime. We are, of course, speaking metaphorically about the changes we make to our tone of voice, our personalities, and even the information we’ll discuss depending on the situation we’re in and the people with whom we’re interacting. These changes may be small or major, but we all make them, maybe without even knowing it. Are we all displaying schizophrenia? Thankfully, no. We simply adapt to each situation we encounter. And as we gain more experience in work and life, we get even better at switching these hats even more quickly and subtly. We learn how and when to be more influential around our peers and superiors...and there’s essentially an element of performance when it comes to persuasion. After all, no one will flock to your side of an argument or issue if you stare unblinkingly and speak in monotone. To put it plainly, we’re acting.

So should acting classes be offered at business schools alongside core courses like finance and accounting? As much as that may sound like educational dissonance, a few business programs have begun to offer such courses, according to Aimee Steen’s article “MBA Students Learn That All The Business World’s A Stage.” But don’t think about checking out a play at your local business school anytime soon. “Business schools are drawing lessons from the theatre to enhance their students’ ability to become strong leaders and communicators. But, rather than training students as actors, they are using strategies from the stage to enhance students’ approach across a range of business situations,” says Steen in her article.

While simulating business situations is no substitute for real-world, experiential learning, offering business students some thespian training can offer plenty of insights on leadership and communication—along with a good story and strong characters to make those insights stick. In her article, Steen writes: “according to Christine Kelly, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at MIT, identifying with Shakespeare’s characters in a leadership context gives students more presence and the ability to project well even in stressful scenarios.” And it’s also fun.

There’s also something (a lot, really) to be said for using a kinesthetic-style of learning, which is something that’s not commonly used in business programs, given the traditional lecture format where the professor stands and lectures while the students sit and listen. You may recall from a previous Hult Labs post that students can turn into temporary zombies in the classroom when they sit through a lecture, passively receiving information. Because it’s not just a good story that can make an insight stick; it helps to move our limbs as we stretch our minds; actual physical movement enhances learning.

And then there’s this: we all know by now that we usually end up surprising ourselves (and learning more) when we journey outside of our comfort zones. An acting course that requires students to react in ways they wouldn’t naturally helps them to step out of their own pair of shoes and into another. This can be a valuable lesson to practice—in a “safe” setting—that helps to build tolerance for bridging divergent perspectives and collaborating on solutions. Steen quotes MIT lecturer Daena Giardella as saying: “Some people are by default more outgoing, some are more retiring, more quiet,” she says. “We look at those default habit roles and I challenge them to move out of their comfort zone.” But does all this acting compromise our integrity or sincerity?

Again, thankfully, the answer is no. If you’re concerned that learning some acting skills will make you come across as a big phony when dealing with people, take solace. Steen quotes Ed Freeman, who teaches a course on leadership and acting at the University of Virginia, as saying: [Acting] “is about emotional intelligence. A lot of people think of acting as big emotions, but that is just generally bad acting. We have got to be authentic.” So we’re acting…and being ourselves? Strangely, yes.

When it comes to convincing a roomful of important people, or seeking engagement from your team on a controversial issue, it’s critically important to be able to communicate in a way that not only shows authenticity, but also a relaxed and confident air. Steen points out that it’s really only actors who receive sufficient training on breathing and vocal techniques to come across as authentic and convincing to an audience, while steeling against a case of nerves. It sounds paradoxical—and maybe it is.

And while students may enjoy taking on different personas in a course that explores Shakespearean characters, for example, they ultimately learn valuable techniques on how to present themselves to the best of their abilities as they build careers in the real world. And the insights may extend beyond the professional realm, too, if they end up learning more about themselves. “It is really learning to be more effective as a human being,” Steen quotes Freeman as saying. And as we strive to keep up with all the different hats we have to wear in all the professional roles we will have throughout our careers, it helps to have a few tools in our tool bag that’ll help us wear each hat as compellingly as possible. It makes us wonder: MBAs from Juilliard?

Photo courtesy of Central Sussex College.

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