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Theatre and Management - Finding Where The Two Meet

with Vijay Nair, Visiting Faculty IIM Bangalore

As organizations have come to recognize the importance of inculcating soft skills in employees, theatre has emerged as one of the contemporary means of exploring and learning organizational processes.
In this interview with Prof. Vijay Nair, an organizational coach and consultant with over two decades of experience in managing theatre workshops and in human resource development, we focus on the frameworks used in theatre based learning that can have practical applications at workplace. We also touch upon the role of soft skills and the emergence of a global work place.

    Link Between Theatre And Management

    tejas@iimb: At first glance, theatre and management seem to be completely different worlds. What are then some of the parallels that can be drawn between the two?

    VN: Yes, you are right. At first glance, theatre and management appear to be totally diverse fields. While theatre is thought to be a field for the mavericks, management is for those who believe in pragmatism. Yet, there are a lot of elements that are interchangeable. If you go through the management literature of recent times, you would find that words like passion and talent have become quite common and theatre as we know is ruled by passion.
    Just as an organization follows Management by Objectives (MBO), there are super objectives in a theatre production and the actor's role has to contribute to that. The concept of a balance score card in organizations can be said to be quite similar. Similarly, finding the right person for the right job is similar to the process of casting for a production.
    Theatre production is like a project management exercise. Similar to any new venture, we start with a limited budget. The producer has to ensure that he keeps the quality of the production intact and the motivation levels of the crew high while also keeping in mind the constraints of budget.

    tejas@iimb: Are there some frameworks that theatre provides or that you personally use that managers can use in making their organizational roles more effective?

    VN:I very often use a framework on role effectiveness. We know that plays like Hamlet and King Lear have been staged hundreds of time. But every protagonist interprets and executes the role in a different manner. Likewise, in an organization, an employee interprets the role assigned to him or her as per his or her strengths. While someone can be more suited for a research based role, another person can be better at a role with customer orientation. The framework on role effectiveness brings an understanding of whether or not a role is suited to a person and vice versa.
    The second framework is one on complementary and supplementary partnerships. In theatre it is very important to improvise on the spot. There has to be an element of respect between the cast and the crew in order to handle the mistakes on stage well. A similar relationship is required between the members of an organization, say between a boss and his assistant.

    Application In The Organizational Setting

    tejas@iimb: For several years now, organizational theatre has been used as a medium of mediated inquiry in organizations. What is the reason behind the growing importance of this medium in the organizational environment?

    VN: Sometimes very difficult to communicate the values and culture of the organization to the employees through the traditional means of communication. Also, more and more organizations have started to focus on learning with fun. Theatre fits very well in the overall scheme of things.
    For example, one of the projects that we had worked on was with Tata Chemicals. The Tatas have a set of core values. For the senior management, it is relatively easy to set up the cultural pillars of the organization, but the problem lies in communicating the same to the employees working on the shop floor.
    For this purpose, we organized a set of skits for the Tata employees. Sometimes, the actors in these skits were drawn from the workers on the shop floor. Important ideas about conserving costs and improving productivity were communicated through these skits

    tejas@iimb: Politics as we know is a discursive process. Do you think there is a place for discursive politics in an organizational setting?

    VN: Yes, certainly. Organizations are highly political organizations. There is a semblance of power in the system of any organization, just as it exists in politics. Though a CEO often claims that he is willing to listen to and accept dissenting view points, ultimately, dissenting viewpoints hardly get an acceptance. This is very similar to how politicians behave.

    tejas@iimb: Can theatre be used to communicate ways and means of dealing with the organizational politics?

    VN: In any organization, one needs to realize the importance of suitable communication to people both above and below in the organizational hierarchy. People who are able to create pockets of influence in the organization by using the right form of communication have an edge over the others and are able to handle well the organizational politics. Theatre helps managers learn ways of both expressing as well as hiding emotions, a trait that gains more and more importance as one gravitates towards a leadership role.

    Soft Skills In The Organizational Setting

    tejas@iimb: There has been significant focus on applied improvisation in organizational communication. Can you please share some insights on how improvisation can be useful in an organizational setting?

    VN:Knowingly or unknowingly, we all keep on improvising all the time. As we change roles and move from one organization to another, we have to improvise in order to learn and adapt. In an origination one needs to project himself or herself in a certain manner. Thinking on one's feet becomes very essential to perform well in an organization.

    tejas@iimb:What is your opinion on inculcating creativity?

    VN:Generally, people in theatre are tagged to be creative. In the industry, there is often a divide drawn between creativity and pragmatism. But ultimately, one doesn't draw out creativity out of thin air. Likewise, theatre is also not drawn out thin air. If you study the works of the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo, you would find that they are a result of a process. In organizations, one often draws a distinction between innovating and being creative. I think they are inter-related.

    Organizational Systems And Processes

    tejas@iimb:Can we say that our organizational structures, as they stand today, provide potent learning space to the employees?

    VN:From my experience, I can say that organizations usually don't worry about providing a learning platform for employees and teaching them. The relationship between an organization and its employees is highly transactional in nature. Most of the times, employees have to find ways to learn on their own. This has to change going forward. In a number of organizations, I still find that women are treated as outsiders. One would find ample number of men trying to patronize their female colleagues. If we want to provide potent learning space to employees, we still need to go a long way.

    tejas@iimb: You have also enabled a number of organizations, both Indian as well as MNCs, to set up their HR systems and processes. What are some of the key differences that you have observed between domestic companies and MNCs?

    VN:Frankly speaking, I have not observed any significant differences between the two as far as people management is concerned. People are generally affiliative in nature. Indians in particular have a passive aggression about them. The cultural interjects are very strong in India and this interjects all companies, whether domestic or a multinational operating in India.


    Even though theatre and management appear to be completely different worlds, significant parallel can be drawn between the two. Frameworks on role effectiveness and on building partnerships fit well in both theatre and management. Theatre can be used as an effective means of communication to employees at all levels. It can also provide certain ways and means of handling organizational politics. Organizational systems as they stand today need more unconventional ways to break the traditional paradigms and provide potent learning space to employees


    Vijay Nairis a well-known organizational coach and consultant, fiction writer and critic, columnist and theatre director. He was the script consultant for Stumble, the film that won the National Award for the best English Language film in 2003. Still Waters, the theatre group founded by Vijay Nair, offers theatre based organizational interventions. These interventions include training programs on teamwork, leadership, creativity and role Effectiveness. Still Waters also offers a weekend workshop on Creative Writing in Bangalore.He also is a writer with a novel and a collection of plays to his credit. His first organizational book "The Boss is Not your Friend" is being launched soon by Hachette India.


    Mr. Sanjay Kalra, Former CEO, Tech Mahindra

    Sourav Mukherji, Associate Professor, on Knowledge Management in Indian Software Firms

    Dr. Catherine Nickerson, Associate Editor, Journal of Business Communication (Sage)

    Dr.Trilochan Sastry, Professor, IIM Bangalore

    Dr. Padmini Srinivasan, Assistant Professor, IIM Bangalore

    Dr.R. Srinivasan, Associate Professor, IIM Bangalore

    Dr. Vijaya Marisetty, Associate Professor, IIM Bangalore

    Dr. Rajeev Gowda, Professor, IIM Bangalore
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