Management: Learning lessons from the world of theatre

Brigitte Biehl-Missal, lecturer in marketing at Essex Business School

Brigitte Biehl-Missal, lecturer in marketing at Essex Business School - Credit: Archant

All the world’s a stage, and one man in his time plays many parts, says BRIGITTE BIEHL-MISSAL, lecturer in marketing at Essex Business School. But can managers harness the power of the theatre, or “impression management” to use the ugly business jargon, to their advantage?

Managers and actors have many things in common, because all the world’s a stage and the business world increasingly is in the bright spotlight as well.

People working in corporations, be it a small, medium or global player, can benefit from insights into the relationship of business and theatre. They can be more successful if they keep in mind the similarities between the theatre and the business world, and put an eye on the differences as well. Theatre also reminds us that appearances may be deceiving, offering some critical views.

Shakespeare’s famous quote “All the world’s a stage” applies to everyday social behaviour and has a long tradition in management research as well. A breakthrough was the work of the sociologist Erving Goffman “The presentation of self in everyday life”, published in 1959. Goffman used the theatre metaphor to explain how people manage their impression via their appearance, voice, language, gestures, mimics and all other features of body language and demeanour. He emphasised that when people interact with others, they make attempts to control the impression, and others look for clues that are then interpreted in terms of ambition, competence and skills.

The performing arts and the world of organizations have many features in common and the ‘organization as theatre’ metaphor has become relatively widespread in academic research over the past decades. For a couple of decades now, researchers have used the so-called dramaturgical metaphor as a productive framework for analysis, emphasising that employees in a company have to “play” their “roles” in front of customers, colleagues and, not to forget, their bosses. This takes place on a “stage” that may well be the office, a point of sale, a boardroom, or a press conference.

Managers of course have to perform as well and in public situations typically use a range of techniques that we know from the theatre: colourful and impressive scenography, bright lighting, serious clothing, and a confident style of performing and rhetoric in order to build up an image of competence for investors, the media and public stakeholders.

So called “natural” situations in organisations are becoming more and more rare, while “theatrical” situations in which the perception of behaviour aimed at manipulating impressions is stronger, are becoming increasingly common. Soft factors become increasingly relevant and are difficult to measure, and people are forced to make judgements based on appearances. Impression management has become a common point of reference to describe leadership as an activity of regulating information about the self, the organization, and other entities primarily for other persons. It has been suggested that the use of theatrical techniques can help leaders “to bolster their image of competence, increasing subordinate compliance and faith in them”, building follower belief and commitment in pursuit of a vision, in particular in times of crisis.

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Managers have to “perform” – or else. Fortune magazine once wrote: “If you want to analyse a company, look at its finances. If you want to explore its soul, talk to the CEO.” This means that the appearance and reputation of the CEO can benefit the business – or harm the company if the leader is perceived as incompetent, impolite, or abrupt. Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary only recently announced “to eliminate things that unnecessarily p*** people off”, referring to his own style of management that shines through the sometimes uncommunicative culture. Most people use impression management to some extent during situations such as job interviews, but others more consciously use it on a regular basis. The tricky thing: Even if you do not actively manage the process, you are still sending signals, for example via your shoes and outfit. This involves some risk.

Research on gender in management has found that woman are much more perceptive towards other people’s outfit and style, but still are the main target of women’s and men’s criticism. There are reports of job interviews that were unsuccessful because the pony tail did not communicate the right level of competence.

Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts, however, is not only the best paid CEO in the UK, the media also finds that she is the best dressed. The appearance of Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer in Vogue, however, has sparked a broad range of positive and negative comments, with some admiring her positive and glamorous attitude and others bashing her more relaxed pose as “unprofessional”. Yet still the IT sector is different from other businesses that want to be more serious. Management research has found that in most settings men are rated “competent” when being tall, good looking and deep voiced. Of course, these façade does not express inner values and competencies, and that is a more critical lesson we can learn from the theatre.

In the theatre, it is the actor who as a medium is the critical message. Leaders are the epitome of drama and over the millennia the stage has made fools of kings, capitalists and communists rather than praising them. The actor, who puts on an act and who is openly committed to pretence, transparently points to the fact that appearances may be deceiving and things and persons may be different from what they seem. Actors lend their external features to the role but there is no inner self and no “real” character at all.

This inherent truth can also be discerned etymologically in the Greek word for actor, “hypokrites”, which refers to a person who is playing a part, pretending to be someone else, putting on a false appearance. Theatre in this sense bears an inherent reflexive potential and may raise audience awareness towards the prevalence and pressures of role playing, questioning this behaviour rather than ‘masking’ it. Not all protagonists are ideals for managers. The stages present characters who are insecure and ponder about “To be or not to be”, to use Hamlet’s famous words. In organisations however, there often is little space for being indecisive and charismatic leaders, in order to communicate motivation and goals, need to reflect constantly on appearing to be secure. In today’s complex business world that also demands sustainability and responsibility, lessons learnt from the theatre do not only relate to acting skills but to a critical look behind the façade and include an encouragement not to “play the part” at all cost.