The owner of a large retail chain brought me in to review the situation with a manager, Melissa, who had a great pre-promotion track record, worked long hours, and was very detail-oriented. But Melissa never got anything done on time, and her division had an unacceptably high turn-over rate.
The diagnosis? Melissa was status-blind. She didn’t understand her own status in the organization. She had no sense of her natural authority (which was considerable as she had been in the industry for a couple of decades and excelled at every position she previously had). But she couldn’t let go of the shop tools to grab hold of the management tools. Melissa let her direct reports set the tone and the agenda, did most of their jobs for them, and in a destructively passive-aggressive way, blew up every few months because she was completely overwhelmed.
In a world where ‘flattening hierarchies’ and “self-managed teams” are popular concepts, the values of clear hierarchies and status-based relationships are not often understood. As a consequence people are put into positions of responsibility, but given few tools to be effective. We joke about people being ‘Peter principled’ but the probable damage of being asked to operate above your level of competence is serious. The performance of Melissa’s division was in the tank, and Melissa’s career was in trouble.
To start with, we need clarity: what exactly does managing others mean? What are the strengths I have that got me this role in the first place? What are the limits of my authority? What are the areas in my own behaviour that must develop to be successful in this new role?
Improvisational theatre provides a safe and experiential way of exploring these questions and learning what exercising management or leadership status feels like.
Status games are a key part of improvisational theatre. Status in improv refers to the power relationship a character has with all the other characters in a scene. Playing up the status of a character or the status relationship between characters adds depth to a scene.
A simple exercise I use to explore this early in a management workshop is called ‘Status Cards’. In this game I pick out cards from a deck and attach them to the forehead of each player in the group. The players can see each other’s cards but not their own. Then a setting is provided, such as ‘The Office’ or “The White House/Prime Minister’s residence” or “The Royal Palace”. Anywhere status is an obvious factor.
One of my favourite locations for this game is in an actual office, if one is available, or a board room.
Through improvised dialogue and action, the players now have to figure out their own status (as determined by the playing card on their forehead) in relationship to every other player. Everyone gets their clues from how others are behaving towards them. The actual ‘face value’ of the card may not be revealed by any player.
At the end of the scene, or after a pre-set amount of time, the players can be asked to line up in ‘status order’ to see if they got their status right.
This is a great exercise because it reveals at least 5 things that we debrief after the game is played:
- Status is negotiated. We may walk into a room thinking we know who we are and where we stand in the order of things. But until we have ‘negotiated’ all of the respective positions, we don’t really know where we stand. Our perceptions of our status matter less than what others think our status is.
- We communicate status in many ways. I ask participants to reflect on how they negotiated their status. How did they talk: tone, volume, inflection, speed? What did they talk about? What kind of body language did they use? What did they do with their hands and eyes to confirm status?
- We have a status ‘set point’. Most of us move through the world unconscious of our ‘natural’ or de facto authority (which others assign to us based on who we really are), as opposed to our ‘formal’ or de jure authority (what we got because we were promoted) . This unawareness of our natural authority as assigned to us by others is the ‘status-blindness’ of the manager in the introduction. It can lead to serious conflict in an organization as managers act in ways that are at odds with their natural authority and status.
- Renegotiating status can make us more conscious. I ask participants what it feels like to realize they were being put in a higher or lower status position than they were used to. Were they aware of the tug? Did it make them more aware of their own assumptions about their status?
- Status can be problematic. When there is poor alignment between our perceptions of our status and the perceptions of others about us, it generates conflict. The constant negotiating of perceptions, and formal and natural authority, is time-consuming and unproductive.
Power is Good
Power, authority, and status are not a problem. Behaving in ways that does not acknowledge the realities and responsibilities of authority or status is a problem. In my experience more managers get themselves into trouble by ducking the responsibilities of their formal status than by being excessively authoritarian.
In an organization, status is created via three inputs: formally assigned roles; our own perceptions of our status; and the perceptions of others. Getting all three lined up is important work. This game is a great way to begin that discussion. This may be a straight-forward and fun ‘introductory’ game, but it generates a lot of conversation about status at the workplace, and the extent to which managers ‘get’ their roles.
A revealing variation to this game is to hand out the cards to the players and instruct them to keep their ‘card status’ to themselves. They should reveal their status only in how they interact with others.
What about Melissa?
What happened with that manager from the retail chain?
We started with about 6 months in feedback reviews and 1-on-1 coaching to bring us all to a place of getting what was going on. It was clear that this was a valued employee doing the wrong job. Melissa’s formal status/role was completely out of whack with her strengths and natural authority.
Then Melissa and I worked with senior management for a few more months to create a role that allowed her to do what she did best, while acknowledging her contribution to the company and retaining her compensation package. That solution would not have been possible without an enlightened employer. Productivity and turn-over metrics have been improving steadily in that division for 18 months now.
To learn more about how an improv workshop can take the blah-blah-blah out of your next retreat or management seminar, contact Clemens at email@example.com. Improv takes great team-building and management strategies, and makes them real and unforgettable.