The key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that you’ve got it made.

George Burns

Ever considered that we use the same term for delivery of our role expectations and acting? Performance is a big part of our organisations. Are you getting the performance you expect or a show?

I saw a recent post by a thought leader that was advocating leaders focus on authenticity. That post defined authenticity as ‘creating the appearance of transparency, sincerity, and authentic behaviour.’ I thought it was a remarkably authentic definition of the focus of much of the discussion of authenticity in organisations. Instead of being who they are, the goal is to teach people to perform as if they are who they should be. All the rough and inconvenient edges are smoothed away. If you can fake that you’ve got it made.

Playing a role is a major part of any employee’s experience of an organisation. Oddly, that role is rarely defined or even considered in the employee experience. Employees are left to work out that part of the employee experience for themselves. The roles we perform to fit in are usually undiscussable. A great deal of the psychological stress of any organisation is the art of ‘faking it until you make it’, exploring the required performance of the role before you even consider doing what the role requires as achievements.

In Erving Goffman’s work on performance theory he explicitly used a theatre metaphor to examine how people managed the impressions that they created in others. In his work, people seek self-preservation by managing others favourable impressions. These characteristics are not unrelated to the key ‘theories in use’ of behaviour that Argyris describes in Teaching Smart People to Learn. Consider how favourably we view these behaviours:

  • Remaining in control
  • Maximising winning
  • Avoiding emotions
  • Appearing rational

We hire people because they look the part and we let them develop to success because they continue to look the part while the results have not yet arrived. This performance is a major barrier to the career success of diverse candidates who may not look the part or take longer to understand the subtleties of performance due to cultural or other differences in experience. Bear in mind this assessment has nothing to do with talent, potential or delivery on role expectations. We are adjudging performances.

Unreality, illusions and undiscussables are major barriers to achieving real outcomes in organisations and a major barrier to adaptation. The performance dynamic that Goffman discuss and that lie behind the Burns joke are real social human behaviours. Ignoring or banning them won’t help us. Demanding authenticity just increases the art form to another level. Moving beyond this, requires us to make the performance explicit and end the willing suspension of disbelief. We do that by helping employees understand the explicit domains and expectations as openly as possible.

Performance is a part of the employee experience so include it in the handbook. In this experience economy use the tools of theatre to design an experience that explicitly engages performance and guides the employee. This includes:

  • Defining the different situations in the organisation and how each context has different expectations and actions. For example, does your organisation behave differently with clients or in industry functions to internal conversations. It is wise in this process to reassess if these differences are valid or required.
  • Build flexibility into the scenes and acts in those situations to enable employees to improvise and adapt. Help your employees understand that real life is more like improvisational comedy or street theatre than classical theatre of any culture.
  • Make characters, behaviours & successful scripts explicit and shared. If people have to act, at least give them a script and ensure that script is really agreed by the audience who judges the performance. Throw out any outdated behaviours that don’t reflect actual ‘theories in use’ and review the validity of those in operation in the organisation.
  • Create space off-stage and back-stage to enable employees to escape their roles and prepare for the next performance. If there needs to be directors, set designeers, propmasters, dressers, lighting, sound and others to support the performance, include and celebrate these roles.
  • Focus on outcomes, not performance. Reward outcomes and not performance. Review all the systems in your organisation that are performance oriented, like recruitment, talent and promotion to ensure that you aren’t getting those who best fake it.
  • Maintain an open dialog around the effectiveness of the performance to the situations and a low tolerance for the unreal.

3 thoughts on “Performance

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