The Theatre Of Change

A couple of years ago I was approaching 40 and started looking for one of those big life changing events to really push and challenge myself.

I considered all the usual kind of things people tend to think of at these kind of life milestones – running a marathon, buying a shiny red sports car, climbing a scary mountain, feeding a penguin at the South Pole and even starting a degree in adventure – yes you can actually do a degree in adventure.

But none of these really lit my fire.

Then one day a friend mentioned that they were looking for new members to join a local amateur dramatic theatre company that they were a member of which sounded much more like the kind of thing I was after. So I went along to a new members night and joined the theatre group and auditioned for a role in a play. Even though I hadn’t really done any “drama” since school, amazingly I got a part (as a bumbling colonel in Allo Allo).

After months of rehearsals in a local scout hut, learning the ropes and all the artistic processes around putting on a play and spending hours getting the play ready with a really amazing team of people, we were ready for show time.

With a bunch of mates, our little theatre group transported all of the set and props which the backstage team had carefully created over the winter months – from the scout hut which was a squeeze to fit 20 people in at a time to a local hall which comfortably sat 200 people in the audience. The change in space was refreshing.

Here’s a picture of my view from the stage just before we started our dress rehearsal:


I will never forget the first night of the play when the curtain was being pulled back thinking what the hell have you got yourself into Guy? I was absolutely terrified. Would I actually remember the 95 lines I had rehearsed off by heart? Would my leg stop shaking through fear? Would I stay awake? (I hadn’t slept properly in a week).

The curtain went up and we put on the play and it was brilliant fun and a great way to mark my birthday.

And with the benefit of hindsight, looking back the experience was very similar to changing a business. We had a team of people with a goal in mind (to put on a play) with some clear outcomes that we wanted to achieve (entertain our customers and cover our costs for putting on the play). For info I believe the costs were covered and I didn’t hear of anyone running out of the theatre screaming so I guess both were covered.

One of the most interesting things I experienced while I was up there on the stage, dressed up in a silly costume, with thick make up caked on and the baking lights shining down on me was a strange but wonderful feeling of connecting with every single person in the audience. It felt like a crazy sensation at the time but with everyone watching me when I said a line I felt like I was looking at and speaking to each audience member when I said my lines.

Every single line, inflection, look, action, reaction, movement and gesture had been rehearsed literally hundreds of times, but only some had got a reaction. And when a joke really landed, the audience seemed to erupt.

Now please believe me when I say ‘when a joke landed’ I am not in any way blowing my trumpet here. The source material was brilliant, the play director was brilliant, the cast was brilliant and the hard working back stage team were brilliant. They all patiently took the time to coach me how to go from a newbie zero to well, something a little bit more than a newbie zero in the space of 3 months.

I couldn’t sleep again after the first night of the play – but this time it wasn’t through fear – I was buzzing. I critically analysed everything I had done. What could I do differently to get a better reaction the next night? What if I slowed down my delivery? Or spoke a bit more loudly maybe? Or if I stood upstage a bit? All of these played on my mind. I made a couple of tweaks the following night and got some bigger laughs, especially around how I played with my comedy wig!

So here’s the thing…

That feeling of connection I felt when I was up on stage is called emotional contagion. It’s about understanding how our behaviour can make an impact and a powerful connection with other people. Emotional contagion is one of the most useful tools to understand and utilise when undertaking change.

Our moods have a dramatic impact on the moods and emotions of others around us. Studies have shown how we behave can dramatically infect the moods and behaviours of others. The impact of emotional contagion has a major influence on the success of changing a business.

And when I think back to our play, we were able to tightly control the emotional contagion we had with our audience. Our play was effectively hidden in our little hut until we were ready to show off the final article and pull back the curtain to a nice, well behaved, ticket paying audience who all knew what they were coming to watch.

And let’s just for a moment imagine that the art of change management was like putting on a play in a business where you are on stage. What would the play look like?

Well to start with, when you change something in a business you just don’t have the luxury of a scout hut – and no the MD or the HR Director’s office is not a hut. Often the preparation of the change will involve people from across the business in meetings and workshops of some form or other. And this in turn means it becomes very, very difficult to control emotional contagion – but it IS possible, but careful preparation and planning is required.

And there is a curtain of sorts to cover preparation on what’s going on, but it can’t possibly cover the stage all of the time. And not everyone will be in the same place when you want to start the process of change.  For example:

  • Some people are already in their seats watching and waiting.
  • Some have no interest at all to come and watch the play or even take part.
  • Some may talk to their neighbours in the audience and provide a running commentary of the play.
  • Some may heckle the play before, during and after the performance.
  • Some may turn their chairs around and face the other way.
  • The list goes on, you get the picture I am sure.

When you are making change every single thing you do, from the changes you choose to make, to the people who make the change, to the people you associate with in the business, to the emails you write, to the various updates you send, to the comments you make to those standing next to you in the lunch queue, to the way your face reacts to a comment in a meeting – all count to how the business perceives the change and how it will impact them.

And when the change is ready to go live, there is no chance to think about what can change for the next night – because there is only one night to put on the show. Remember that old saying “you only get one chance to make a first impression”? Well that holds so true here. You can’t say that one was a dress rehearsal!

So just how do you create emotional contagion when you want to change or improve something in a business? Here are five brief tips on what I have used that have worked for me:

  1. Assume that not everyone who will be impacted by the change is in the same place as you for various reasons and will go through the various steps of change at different times and different ways. Be patient and factor in time to help people through the change.
  2. Ensure that everyone on the change team really understand what the key challenges are and make sure they are equipped to address them. Also, focusing on resilience of people on the change team executing the change is key – you need to support people who are supporting you with the change. There are a number of emotional resilience tools that can help here.
  3. Help the team understand the impact of sending mixed messages on the change to the business. Identify people who are in the organisation who can act as advocates to the change and talk up the project to support the message. These are rarely the senior leaders in the business and they will need time to recruit onto the team to support you.
  4. Present an air of positivity and ‘the art of the possible’. People need to feel they can be trusted and have a part to play in the change. Make people really feel they are part of the solution. Make time for people.
  5. And finally – remember every single thing you do from the moment you walk through the door in the morning to the moment you leave is on show, so put on your ‘game face’ every morning. 🙂

So grab your audience’s attention and remember this: when you want to change something and you need to engage and fire people up – think about emotional contagion.

This is the Theatre of Change. The lights are dimming, your audience is waiting…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s