Relationships at Work - the Employee Experience and Workplace Culture Podcast

Why We Need the Power of Theatre at Work with Katie McLaughlin

November 07, 2022 Russel Lolacher Episode 40
Relationships at Work - the Employee Experience and Workplace Culture Podcast
Why We Need the Power of Theatre at Work with Katie McLaughlin
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Relationships at Work, Russel chats with transformation and culture change consultant Katie McLaughlin on why we need to introduce the principles and power of theatre into the employee experience.

Katie shares her thoughts and experience with...

  • What does theatre looks like as an engagement tool in the workplace
  • How theatre can help employees be seen and heard
  • The challenge of diversity in introducing theatrical practices
  • The two biggest takeaways from a theatre exercise
  • How to convince decision makers to embrace theatre
  • When the best time to incorporate this method in the employee journey

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Russel Lolacher
On the show today, it’s Katie McLaughlin, and here’s why she is awesome. She is the founder, chief strategist and transformation artists for the McLaughlin method, which focuses on leadership coaching, workshop facilitation and employee engagement consultation. If anybody’s wondering, I am reading this as quickly as I can and trying to get the words right. Her background is filled in leadership around training, enablement and development. And to no one’s surprise, she spent some time in theatre and production, which is funny considering the topic today. She’s on a mission to stop workplace hurts. Hello, Katie.

Katie McLaughlin
Hello, thank you so much for having me today. I am pumped for today.

Russel Lolacher
Good. Good. It’s midday. So we are I usually record these in the morning. So usually I’m caffeine fueled. today. I’m just it’s been a nice day fuel. Yeah, I’m definitely sunshine fueled. We I live in Seattle. And normally, we don’t have as much sunshine. And today is an exception. And it’s been beautiful. Victoria, we’re right above. Yeah. And we’re feeling that sunshine as well. I got some questions for you, Katie. And we’re going to start off with the question that I asked all my guests, which is, what’s your best or worst employee experience?

Katie McLaughlin
So I’ve had a lot of worst employee experiences, part of why I do what I do in my business now. But the one that immediately came to mind, which I imagine is going to be timely and relevant to a lot of people out there is the experience that I had in getting laid off. So I had never been laid off before. And it was this experience, that completely floored me, I had no idea that it was going to happen. And most importantly, I had no idea because of how much leadership had said they wanted to invest in the work that I was doing when I was their employee. And I was the only person with the subject matter expertise that I had, and had been laid off, told me that likely a lot of that was lip service, that at the end of the day, the company wanted to invest in the expertise that I was bringing in the way that I was trying to help transform the way we help handled people and the way we work with our clients. And then I got laid off. And I said, Well, you know, doesn’t really mean that you actually did, it’s a lie.

Russel Lolacher
It’s funny how people may not realize how much this is a personal thing, rather than a numbers game. And I get it, some organizations have to lay off, but there’s always that belief that are you investing, what are you investing in, then? Are you investing in people? Or are you investing in the bottom line? I get they’re both important, but…

Katie McLaughlin
Totally. Well, and that same day, I was scheduled to have a few really important meetings like to push through some things for one of our clients. And it was like, I’m the only person who does this, who’s going to tell my clients, right, it was even less about me, and it was more about how are you guys going to take care of these folks. And they essentially, you know, we’d like it’s not your it’s not your responsibility anymore.

Russel Lolacher
I’m gonna pick the scab a little bit, because I know it’s simple. But so how did they handle telling you if because I mean, I’m guessing it was a while ago, and you’re still kind of angry about it. So I’m curious is how they handled it, because there are the right ways in the wrong ways to do that when it comes to giving you bad news like that.

Katie McLaughlin
Right. So I mean, first and foremost, I was a remote employee. And then there was no scheduled meeting, just all of a sudden, I was messaged by now we had a new department lead. He’d been around for a few months. But I barely had a chance to get to know him or speak with him. And all of a sudden, he messaged me and said, you know, hey, do you have a few minutes to chat right now? And I was actually not feeling well that day. And I was actually I was like, I’m actually not feeling great trying to save my energy for these important client meetings. Can we talk tomorrow? And you know, he was like, No, it needs to be today. And I probably should have known then like that. That’s what was going to happen. But this was my my first experience, hopefully my last. And you know, he was on the line, the HR person was on the line. And you know, just said it, it was like a five minute call. Very brief. Not very personal. No real. Thank you in terms of what you have done to date, right?

Russel Lolacher
Okay, I’m going to stop stewing in the trauma. Sorry about that. I just was kind of curious because I’m always when it comes to negative experiences. It’s been a reoccurring theme on this podcast, that these are issues that have happened, like a long time ago that people are still sort of feeling and it’s that human side of it that people just don’t yet, but we’re gonna get into the human side of things. Oh, I’m a segway king, Katie. I’m gonna tell you that right now. Going right into the topic today, which is power of theatre. Now I am so curious as to how this hell has anything to do with the workplace? Because immediately I’m thinking the room where it happened, Hamilton some bitter employee not feeling like they’re in the room where it happens breaking out into song in the middle of a meeting. What are we talking about when we talk about the power of theatre when it comes to the workplace?

Katie McLaughlin
First of all, I really hope that one day that happens, where someone breaks out into song and singing Hamilton, but I’m so glad you gave that example, because that’s actually the core of one of the principles I teach folks is that including people, right, happily helping people to be in the room where things are happening is crucial. But back to your actual question of like, what is this whole theatre thing, you know, in the workplace. And so I don’t make people put on a production, let’s just, let’s just put that out there. What happens is, theatre is a language that we use as humans. And we’ve used it for 1000s of years to express ourselves, and to be understood and to understand. And so the body of theatre work that I use, as part of my workshops, I also use this in one on one coaching is using our bodies and facial expressions to create an image a larger than life image of the inner landscape of what’s actually going on, relative to different scenarios at work. And so I’m actually really glad we started this podcast the way we did, because I’m very big on addressing all of those things that just stay below the surface. I call it the gunk that keeps teams stuck and keeps us as individuals stuck, right that whether it’s workplace trauma, I like to use the word workplace hurt. Because we might think capital “T” trauma, but lowercase “t” trauma are those little, those little dig moments when someone’s like, Hey, where’s that thing? You know, and you’re like, Well, hang on, hang on a second, like I told you get it tomorrow, right. And then that’s just like, all of that starts to add up. And we can’t forget it very easily. And so we need some kind of outlet, to let it out, to express it to be seen. So we can start to move past it as a group as individuals.

Russel Lolacher
What problem is an organization trying to fix if they’re going to introduce theatre into the organization, because if there’s an executive going, I have X problem theatre is the thing that will fix this. I hear what you’re saying communication, I hear storytelling a lot in what you’re saying. But to take that a step further into performance. What is the problem we’re fixing here?

Katie McLaughlin
So throughout my work, you know, I’ve had to evolve that and understand where the where is the problem, and the most obvious problem to leaders is conflict. There’s some kind of unresolved conflict, it could be super overt, right? Where there was somebody screaming at somebody else, or what have you. Or it could be, like this tension that kind of is always teaming under the surface in team meetings, or, you know, in an executive team meetings. So I do this work both with executives as a whole team themselves with a whole, like, you know, kind of business unit type of team. And the other big thing is like unexplained performance, productivity issues, like there’s clearly something going on, that we can’t figure out, we’ve tried different ways of motivating people, we have tried different comp structures. You know, we’ve tried restructuring. You know, we just can’t figure out why this team seems to be so stuck when this team maybe out of in comparison to other teams of the same kind have all the same resources, all the same training, right? Like there’s something keeping that team stuck.

Russel Lolacher
So you call it the McLaughlin Method, this power of theatre, I’m going to have a wild speculation, I think it has might some to do with your last night. I’m taking a while Brandon gets here. Okay. So let’s, let’s break it down a bit. Because I want to know what we’re talking about. We talked about theatre, we’re talking about problems and fixes. And I know there’s more to it than just conflict. But what is this method? What’s the method, Katie?!

Katie McLaughlin
Totally. I’m going to use the same example from my worst employee experience. So if I were to create an image of what it really felt like to be in that conversation and to, you know, be laid off, I might create an image where like, I’m kind of hiding myself, for those of you who are listening, hiding myself putting my arms in front of myself, scrunching my neck down. Obviously, an image that many of us never actually do when we’re trying to express an emotion, but that might help somebody else understand kind of the severity of the emotion. And I’m curious when I make that image, Russel, what do you think? What words come to mind for you based on that?

Russel Lolacher
Oh, fragile. Hiding. Defense position. You’re turtling basically.

Katie McLaughlin
Yeah, totally. And you know, that’s just probably one of a number of images that are now coming to mind for me about that experience. And what’s really powerful about that is like, you had an opportunity to see me, right and see the complexity of my emotion. And then I had the opportunity to be seen, right, you sharing those different words and labeling my physical experience is very validating. And so usually, though, I don’t put people on the spot, especially if you’re in a group, and we’re all responding to that same prompt, right. So if I may say we’ve all been through a prior layoff experience, create an image that is, you know, an expression of how how it felt being in that conversation, or how it felt after that conversation. And we all do it at the same time. So that way, we’re reducing that kind of, oh, God, I’m on I’m on stage, you know, kind of fear. Because we’re all again, we’re all in it together. And then you get to start seeing, Oh, hey, Russel’s image looks like mine, hey, their image kind of looks like mine, or, Oh, wow, I’m really shocked that that person had that reaction. But it makes sense. It’s just not what mine was. So the other piece we were getting up before, like, what else happens as a result of this, as we start to build empathy, we start to build respect for others. And we start to see how even though we are very different people from different backgrounds, there’s a lot of similar emotional experience, that we can start to build bridges among people who maybe we didn’t think we could.

Russel Lolacher
Doesn’t diversity get in the way, in some ways when it comes to teaching a method like this, because we’ve got a lot of people that are, oh, I don’t know, introverts and don’t want to be sitting on a stage, they want to be sitting in the corner and let you deal with that energy over there, this energy is going to be internal, I see that as a roadblock, because a lot of people aren’t drama kids from grade 11, that love to be, you know, the center of attention.

Katie McLaughlin
Totally. And again, that’s why everybody does things together, right? I’m not singling anybody out, and not requiring anybody to get up on a stage, we’re all on equal footing. For this. I’ve even had folks where we’re at. So we can’t just jump to that, like, real space, right, that I was kind of just jumping into, we have to play. And so like, there’s so many different theatre games, this is where I draw on some of my improv training and, and we play and we start to, like, have those moments of laughter, we start to bring our defenses down. You know, that’s kind of more of the traditional team building, you know, workshop kind of effect. But for me, that’s not deep enough, we have to go under that surface, and see what’s blocking that connection. And it’s almost always filled with like, assumptions and biases, especially when you bring up the idea of diversity, right? Oh, this person is an introvert. So they’re not going to express themselves, or this person is an extrovert. So they’re going to be clearly expressing themselves. And we know what’s going on. Now. Just because we see what’s happening on the outside doesn’t mean we know what’s happening on the inside.

Russel Lolacher
So I’m envisioning here, “Katie’s coming in Katie’s fixing us. We’re taking a day, a week, whatever, to sort of get through some of the crunchy stuff, and do some breakthroughs.” Say I’m an individual in that meeting, what tools am I taking back to my desk, as now representing this power of theatre.

Katie McLaughlin
So there’s two big things that I find people take back. First and foremost, this becomes a self reflection activity. So you can start to get really real with yourself about what you’re feeling. We as a society don’t do that, like we have been taught to shove our feelings down. We have not developed the language, the actual words to use to express our to express ourselves. And so using this as a self reflection exercise can be super helpful to know. Like, something doesn’t feel right. What could it be, you know, and as you go to create some of those images, you’re like, yeah, no, that’s not it. I’m feeling maybe a little more, like, put my hands up, you know, and then I’m like, oh, yeah, that feels that feels actually resonant. And then you can start to put that words to that for yourself. Because when you go into future conversations, if you want to make change in your relationships, at work, you have to know where you’re starting from. And if you don’t, you’re just going to be heaping a whole bunch of baggage and assumptions and biases on the other person, which isn’t going to resolve anything. The second thing that people take is, through our work together as a group, we’ve created a whole bunch of what I refer to as objective examples. And so now we can use those collectively as a team to reference like, hey, we were having a conversation about roles within within our team meetings. And we realized there were all of these potential biases based off of people of different backgrounds stepping into different roles and what we assumed about them. Like that is my experience right now. You know, remember, when we did that, I feel like I’m being pigeon-holed into that experience. So those objective examples become tools for future communication.

Russel Lolacher
Can you give me sort of a walkthrough of maybe one exercise you do? Something where you walk through, and it couldn’t be a conflict?

Katie McLaughlin
So an example that comes to mind for me is, I’m not going to go the pure deep conflict route, like the obvious, we’ve yelled at each other kind of situation. But more thinking about, you know, people on this team describe that, most frequently, I use actually data from an employee engagement survey. There’s a frequently statements like, “I feel supported by my manager.” So we can use that same say, that’s a really low scoring item, we can use that same prompt to indicate okay, how do you what does that feel like? Or what does that like? What does that feel like to you first and foremost, when, you know, essentially, you said, I don’t feel supported by my manager. And so you would, then let’s all create an image, if you feel that way, let’s go create an image, like maybe I’m gonna be kind of huffy, and I’m gonna like squint, and I’m gonna have my hands over my chest. And then, so now I want you to create an image of how your manager does show up in this way that is not supportive. And so because we’re on a video camera, right, now, I have the opportunity to do something that maybe actually is harder to do in person, but I’m going to create an image. And now for those of you who are just listening, I moved way out of screen. So that way, you couldn’t really see me this idea that as a manager, I’m not present, right or barely present. And then to now we’ve created two images, the image of how I feel, when it when I don’t feel supported, what I feel my manager looks like, in their role of not being supported. And now I can create the image of my ideal. If I felt supported by my manager, what would that look like for them to do? Right? So I’m taking on an image of this is what I think my manager is supposed to be doing. And so that image might be something like, where I’m very, very visible, first of all, and then I’ve got kind of my arms open, and, you know, my hands open, very kind of inviting type of image. And, you know, then again, that whole little sequence provides us the opportunity to discuss, you know, what, what does that behavior look like in practice? And then, okay, as a leader, afterwards, we can have a debrief and say, okay, so what are some actions that you think you could do to help be that ideal image? Right? What would that look like? What time would it require? You know, how could you start doing it today?

Russel Lolacher
Executives love stuff like this, because it’s so businessy. If anybody’s noticing my sarcasm, I’m being very general. So what do you say to that executive that has to, you know, I don’t know if we have a duty to do touchy feely things. Now, keep in mind, I’m a big fan of touchy feely. I’m not the one you have to convince. But I can see it being something where it’s like, but we’re not creating a widget while we do this. So it’s a waste of time.

Katie McLaughlin
Some of the leaders out there who think that the relationship part of work is not important. Those are not my clients, and those are people I don’t want to work with. The tide is turning, and more and more people are starting to see how much effort it takes to enact an inclusive work environment and to not just attract the best people, but to keep them and the way that you do that is through keeping them happy and engaged and like wanting to be there. And it is really important that we don’t shortchange the investment we’re making on our people. It is people who talk to your clients, it is people who sell your product and do it in a way that is genuine and honest and real. And they’re not like making promises that you and your company can’t keep, which of course costs you money. They are the ones that help you reduce churn in your clients. So that way, you can continue to rely on that revenue. And they’re the people who build your product. If they hate what if they pay what they’re doing? Or don’t care. That’s where bugs get introduced. That’s where errors get introduced that worse, that’s where safety gets compromised. We can’t do anything in business without people, no matter how much we automate, a person is the one who has to build that automation.

Russel Lolacher
Culture can be an amazing resistance to a tool like this. How have you seen it get in the way? Or how do you how have you? What are you afraid of going into an organization that maybe has hired you, and you’re like, Oh, that’s a red flag.

Katie McLaughlin
So the big challenge that that frightens me is when the person who the person or people who are going to be in the workshop, or in the coaching sessions, have had zero buy-in, into the purchase, right? They have been told by somebody else, that this is what you are going to do. And, you know, I don’t know that, though, that everyone has to be involved in the sales process, for example. But I do think that you as an individual, if you are going to hire someone like me, to do a non traditional intervention, and training or coaching, you need to be the evangelist yourself, right? You have to help other leaders, other team members understand why this matters to you. And, and then you have to participate. That’s the best way is that if you’re the one who’s hiring me, you have to participate. So other people see your investment in this work.

Russel Lolacher
Nothing like an executive or senior leader sitting in a workshop going, Have you fixed the problem yet, as you fix the problem? Yeah, I’m gonna go if I just leave for 15 minutes and come back because everything’s still okay?

Katie McLaughlin
There are no audience members to this kind of theatre. We are all actors and spectators, right? We’re all seeing and observing someone else in the workshop. And then we’re also acting. So that is one of my big rules, no audience members.

Russel Lolacher
I’m just trying to think of the employee journey as a whole because we do the onboarding, there’s this whole gap in the middle, and then they leave or they go to another job. Is it best to implement maybe later? Or do you think it’s best to get them before everybody’s jaded?

Katie McLaughlin
That’s a really great question. Because the “gunk” that I’ve been talking about that keeps people stuck, usually result in people being pretty jaded. The trouble though, is that we are jaded more from just from more than just our workplace. It happens from our entire work history, were impacted by our parents, and how they engaged with us were impacted by art educators. All of that is building up. And of course, the media, let me not forget the media, right, we are building up a story and a picture in our mind of what work is supposed to look like. And when that’s not matching up with our actual lived experience. Or we don’t know how it’s going to match up. We’re just operating on gut instinct. Right? So that said, while yes, I’m using this work as a way to help a specific team, maybe through a specific scenario, get past a particular hump. These skills of empathy, observation, caring and respecting people, what does that look like? What are actions that we take to show care and respect and empathy for others. All of that gets carried over into other relationships. So my goal is that this continues to have ripple effects as people engage with other folks. And the best from this work are ones where we get to revisit this work to see what change has already been made, and maybe to remind ourselves of some of the principles and some of the challenges that we’ve been through.

Russel Lolacher
You mentioned at the top that you’re we’ve mentioned the importance of inclusion. What are some of the other tenants of your method?

Katie McLaughlin
Self awareness is another big tenant, because as we learn to break down well But truly, fundamentally is a workshop or as an excuse me is our relationship. Knowing who we are, and what we bring into a conversation is magnitudes above even understanding the other person. Because we are the only ones we can control. So there is definitely a communication, a self reflection component here, we’re, of course, building emotional intelligence by being able to recognize, and honestly even just be in the space with others expressing an emotion, they’re not gonna be crying, they’re not gonna be yelling, right. But like, there’s still an expression through these images. And staying in the room for that and bearing witness to it is a huge bump to emotional intelligence. I could probably go on and on and on. But you know, all of these different things are going to be continued throughout your organization, as people continue to make change and implement these skills.

Russel Lolacher
Obviously, you didn’t start out as 11 year old going, I’m going to consult about the power of theatre, and I know it’s gonna work. So what was your moment going? No, no, this is, this is an effective method to get people to figure their shit out.

Katie McLaughlin
So I didn’t invent these techniques. Let me put that out there. First of all, but I studied these techniques. Back when I was in college, and I fell in love with them, I thought it was an amazing way to start to express ourselves. Because I’m very aware, hyper aware, I would say, of the inadequacies of language. If you think about any relationship you’ve ever had, and you’ve been misunderstood, like, there you go, language is inadequate, we use different words to mean the wrong things. So being able to create images about something as important as emotions, helps us to really kind of get there, I’d actually say that the aha moment for me about bringing theatre into the workplace, I knew that I knew that I was going to make my life’s work about these techniques, because they have been that beneficial and that impactful to me. But the day that I figured it out, was I was in a coaching session with a customer service rep. And this one rep was really resistant to any kind of coaching. And, you know, we would listen to one of their calls, and they couldn’t identify anything that was wrong, or they couldn’t identify any alternative paths. And so when you’re in a coaching session, where like, you’re just not, you’re butting heads with somebody you’re not getting through, there’s a clear wall up, I tapped into my directing training, where as a director, a good director doesn’t ever feed a line, it’s called a line reading. You know, you don’t ever say the words in the way you think that they should be said, because then the person on the other side is mimicking you. And that is not genuine, it’s not sustainable. And everyone’s going to see see right through it. Same thing in business, where you have to get the horse to water. And in order to do that, you have to try all these different tactics. What if I asked the question this way? What if I put them in a different scenario? What if I offer them a treat? Right? Like you, you have to try these different techniques. And that was when I started to open up my mind to seeing just how many tools and lessons that are essential for creating theatre. How just how much those all apply to the business world.

Russel Lolacher
Hey, Katie, what’s one simple action people can do right now to improve their relationships at work?

Katie McLaughlin
My first suggestion is that you start to practice taking a deep breath, before you react to anything. And you can use this at home too. Because when we don’t create that pause, we are acting from pure gut instinct, our defaults, which are usually not as most supportive of the other relationships, or the other person, it might feel good for a moment, but going to be really bad later. So if you take a breath, then you get to choose, how do I want to be right now? What do I want to say? Do I need to go do something else right to take care of myself and get out of the room, right and say, Hey, that was a lot and I need to go do something else for a minute. And let’s come back to this a little later. But you can’t do that if you’re not creating the pause.

Russel Lolacher
I just took an extended vacation from work and the biggest takeaway was the breath and the pause. Things that were triggering me when I left are a lot more diminished now and I take that space in that moment to just go who and I’m going to bring that to the office Damn straight. I am so thank you for bringing that up. That’s Katie McLaughlin. She’s the founder, chief strategist and transformation artists and McLaughlin method. Thanks for being on the show.

Katie McLaughlin
Thank you so much.