Motivation – The Business of Theater, and The Theater of Business: an Introduction

In theater, every action that takes place on stage during a performance is called a piece of business.  What is it about that particular character that matches up with that particular kind of behavior?  Not just what they do, but why they do it.

Character analysis is an important part of the process of developing the story.  Once the audience, the co-worker, or customer gets a read on the character, they begin to react as soon as that person walks onto the stage.  On “Seinfeld”, as soon as Kramer would come sliding into the room, the audience started laughing.

Our actions tell a story, and sooner or later, someone is watching our performance.  But it’s what is behind the performance; the motivation that drives it that is the important business of theater, and the critical theater of business.  That’s not just a play on words.

The quality of the performance is always judged by the audience, your co-workers, or your customers, isn’t it?  Those who work on improving skills in this area can expect to see improved performance in their business of theater, or their theater of business.  Those who ignore it can expect a poorer quality of performance than might be desirable.  Here’s why.

When your performance, or someone else’s performance is less than desirable, when you’re not getting what you want, or not being treated the way you want to be treated, you’ll feel some tension, won’t you?  Sometimes the stress is subtle, and just it slows you down.  But at other times, you feel you’ve hit a brick wall.

When we run into a wall, we tend to fall back a bit, right?  What does a three year old do when the ice cream falls off the spoon and onto the floor?  Cry?  Scream?  Yell?  Oh, yes!  A three year old doesn’t think about what they may have done to cause the problem.  They just want somebody to fix it.  Their behavior is reactionary.

Most folks don’t even recognize their own primary fallback behaviors under stress, but others will see it if they pay attention.  But just because they see it, doesn’t mean they’ll read it correctly.  In their minds they might be trying to figure out what would provoke them to act in such a way, or worse, judge it to mean something that isn’t true.  And it is for this reason more than anything else, that I would want to share with you the tools of character analysis.

Whether interpreted correctly or not, in the theater of business, there are serious risk factors associated with people reacting under stress.  And if the stress doesn’t go away, the fallback behaviors could develop into a whole series of reactionary behaviors that are even harder to accept, and things could get worse.

Besides affecting individual performance, it can lead to undermining entire systems.  When stories of failures make the news, such as Enron, Arthur Andersen, Lehman Brothers, and others, it often seems that the breakdown in equity was prevalent in the practices of leadership.

In each case, by the end game, all kinds of things had started to go wrong, and lots of bad decisions, spurred by stressful and emotional decisions, lead to a series of reactionary behaviors that brought the house down.  And these are not isolated incidences in human history.  It happens a lot more often than we might be aware of.  Perhaps it was that very regular bit of human nature that lead George Bernard Shaw to say:

“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”

But we can if we want to; if we’ll do what it takes.  The same tools I’d use for character analysis also apply to real people in real situations.  In fact, that’s what they were designed for.  There are several models used to identify temperament, style, and personal motivation which serves to point out predictable behaviors, and methods of modifying them.  More importantly, it needs to be done without judgmental adjectives and negative profiling, but from a more neutral perspective that aids and encourages understanding.  Perhaps that is the hardest lesson to learn when dealing with yourself, or profiles of real people you know.

I want you to think about Elvis Presley, Madonna, Dwight Eisenhower, General George Patton, Mohandas Gandhi, Adolf Hitler,  John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and Mikail Gorbachev.  While each of them displayed quite different personalities from each other, there is one word that has often been used to describe them all: “charisma.”

I speak of charisma as that very compelling talent or attractiveness that would cause others to feel inspired, and want to follow, or in some cases, be like you.  In the story of Joan of Arc, the soldiers didn’t just march along in compliance to military rule, they were committed, and even willing to die for her.

Charisma seems like such an intangible thing, and it’s as if some have it, and some don’t.  But the fact is that it can be defined another way: the ability to get others to want to help you reach your goals, while at the same time, feeling doing so helps them reach theirs.  It means you’ve connected with them.  It means you’re versatile enough to show, and receive empathy from a lot of different kinds of people.

Think of what it would mean to you if your people believe that the “what’s in it for them” is right up there with the “what’s in it for you”.  And, think of what it means to you if they don’t.

That last definition of charisma, having others want to help you reach their goals, while reaching theirs also defines “Equitable Leadership”, because that’s exactly what it is.  When used in workshops, people come away with a better understanding of why people are treated the way they are, and have a much better handle on what other people’s behavior shows how they wish to be treated.

As  leaders, it’s important that we learn how to be open and honest with ourselves and others.  Sometimes when we’re not, the most important person we’re trying to deceive is ourself.  We loose sight of the simple reality that it’s okay to be who we are.

It’s sad to see a person spend their entire life trying to be someone they are not because they think that is the only way to be worthy.  And that can lead to becoming a tragic character.  In drama, what makes a tragic flaw so tragic is that the character often doesn’t recognize it as a flaw.

I’ve enjoyed using a number of assessment tools, but prefer a social style matrix because in addition to being quite valid, it helps me identify conflict and controversy issues by fallback behaviors quicker.  This feature alone makes it very helpful for people in team situations.

But don’t presume they are carved in stone.  In fact, social styles and temperament type indicators are primarily valid within the culture they are observed, and at the time they are taken, though some psychologists have disagreed (especially when their income depends on the particular model they’re selling).  But as Abraham Maslow said:

“He that is good with a hammer (and only has a hammer) tends to think everything is (and sees every problem as) a nail.” 

So, it is reasonable to advise you not to read too much into the assessment.  Everyone needs to remember that your social style or temperament type is never as inflexible as your blood type, no matter how certain you are of its accuracy.  But don’t read too little, either.  Some folks just latch on to some single point about their profile or type, and run with it. It could be like running with scissors. Introversion/extroversion, thinking/feeling – none of these by themselves will give you as clear a picture as you might get by looking at all of it.  And additionally, without the feedback about one being seen as more or less assertive, as well as more or less emotionally controlled as seen within a specified group, it can be quite misleading.

Another thought about a variance between how we’re “wired” and how we behave would be the impact of knowing.  Once a person has been made aware of certain strengths and weaknesses, even if so categorized in their own minds, they will begin to apply them to areas where they can leverage a benefit, or avoid something they personally don’t want.  In some situations, what a person subconsciously wishes to avoid or fears becomes much more powerful than some consciously stated desire or objective.  Recognizing that goes a long way towards understanding how politics manipulates the minds of phobic people.

Once made aware of what these perceptions can and do influence, along with the kinds of behaviors that indicate them, a process of behavior modification can begin.  Or, they are certainly at least likely to think about it far more than it would be expected without such feedback.

So, for the person who behaves significantly different than you might expect them due to temperament, look a little deeper to the motivation behind why they might be wearing a mask.  I’m not talking about, or in any way encouraging deception.  What I’m talking about is how a person chooses to present themselves. Perhaps they do so in such a way in order to connect with, and show empathy to others within their work culture and environment.  What might otherwise be seen as fickle, false or insincere behavior from an overly critical or judgmental point of view, might be a sign of adaptability.  And that ability, be it skill or talent, is the principal trait for survival, according to Darwin.

But that being said, I do caution you not to be fake or insincere, or you’ll get caught (unless you’re a clever sociopath).  As any seriously trained actor can tell you, there’s a lot of difference between “pretending” (at the risk of been seen as pretentious), and acting–which includes understanding the motivation well enough to conduct the business in an efficient, and believable manner.  The business of theater is the motivation.  And far more than most people realize, the theater of business is also the motivation.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Joe M. Turner | on May 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    So insightful, Van. You get it.

    In one of my presentations I talk about the dramatic arc and show how it is congruent to the change curve. Human beings process information in story form, and theater gives it structure. That can be applied to almost any kind of communication, including business.

    Thanks for your thoughts!


  2. Posted by little d on May 23, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    Hey VT, If knowledge was wealth, and the accumulation of it intelligence, would compound interest be in dollars or sense ? I reckon if you had enough change
    you could renew your knowledge with a continuing interest bearing attitude too.

    I enjoyed reading your 2 new post, but couldn’t decide how or what to comment on without exposing which mosaic of characters I was at the time. My Dad, on the other hand, always new which character I really was and he referred to me often by name, just not the one on my birthing certificate. I figured he had to be right about it at least some of the time.

    Living and Learning, damn curious bunch ain’t we ?

    quash on

    little d


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