Organizational Change
Can Hallway Theater Be the Missing Link in Employee Engagement?

How do you engage corporate employees to focus their determination and creativity in working toward business goals? Sparking and capturing the imagination, and dedication, of employees is a core issue for any company — particularly for those focused on sustainability issues.

Consider the audaciousness of various corporate sustainability goals and plans. Kingfisher’s “net positive impact.” Interface’s “mission zero: to eliminate any negative impact our company may have on the environment by 2020”. Unilever’s “Sustainable Living Plan,” which “sets out to decouple our growth from our environmental impact while increasing our positive social impact.” Marks & Spencer’s “Plan A,” which is “working with our customers and our suppliers to combat climate change, reduce waste, use sustainable raw materials, trade ethically, and help our customers to lead healthier lifestyles;” or Nike’s focus on “positive, systemic change.” These goals are big and in need of equally big effort — across companies, supply chains, and business systems.

Corporate strategists, intrapreneurs, entrepreneurs and sustainability advocates all need to review this growing body of work to draw out insights that can serve to spark further inspiration and innovation (For example, Harvard Business School’s John Kotter’s focuses on the role of “heart in change” and the importance a positively oriented and urgent “big opportunity” statements. In addition, there are numerous studies of social change across history and issues, “models” of effecting systemic societal change, and collections of writing on the topic — both in general or applied to a specific issue, such as climate change).

Sometimes, however, the most potent spark for innovation can come from “orthogonal thinking” or the proverbial “left field.” In this vein, it is worth considering the insights of participatory street theater and the work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who focused on “critical pedagogy.” His often-provocative work pivoted around engaging people in learning and acting for change.

Specifically, in Brazilian favelas, Freire’s work influenced ‘street theater.’ That is, favela residents were encouraged to develop and act out their own original theatrical plays for one another within their communities that focused on details of everyday life and common problems. This street theater was a very accessible forum for thinking about why it was so hard to address problems (in this case, poverty) as well as how to forge pathways forward — both individually and collectively. Perhaps most importantly, street theater offered a fun, engaging forum for personal empowerment and community discussion. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a play, particularly one that is deeply resonant with personal circumstances?

The bigger goal that Friere was working toward remains highly relevant today. He was engaged with the question of: How do you help people to see the system in which they are engaged (and enmeshed)? How do people, who may feel trapped by a system, become empowered to craft new options, which are good for them and their communities?

Street theater, and other approaches to Freire-inspired critical pedagogy, is fundamentally about allowing people to examine a situation themselves, and then to generate potential solutions through dialogue that can inform both individual as well collective action.

In the halls of companies today, the question is increasingly how to maintain profitable yet sustainable businesses, which are operating with respect for human rights as well as within ecological boundaries. Needless to say, there is a significant difference between today’s practices and these sustainable business goals.

Participatory ‘hallway theater’ could offer people within companies a creative way to spark new ideas about how to effect change. It could also offer a pathway forward when employees who, disenchanted with the pace of change, then face three choices, as laid out by economist Albert O. Hirschman: “exit, voice or loyalty.” That is, quitting a job (exit) advocating for change (voice), or ignoring concerns and spouting support for current approaches (loyalty).

Hallway theater could offer a pathway for developing ideas about how best to work toward sustainable businesses that are fundamentally about transforming (and thus crafting an exit from) existing systems, through voice and advocacy of new systems, which can be created by employees who wish to remain loyal to an institution.

Why not take insights from Freire’s critical pedagogy and create opportunities for corporate employees to critically examine, and ‘see’ the system in which the company sits? Why not offer employees an opportunity to literally suggest a ‘story’ about how to innovate those problems out of the system - a story that could be explained to management in a play?

Perhaps Friere’s work could inspire a simple, scalable, compelling pathway to sparking more conversation about systems thinking and sustainability. And perhaps we should all be engaging more with the creative side of our brain — exploring how to put our current reality into a theater production for our colleagues and friends.

Quite possibly, these efforts could spark innovative thinking about how to change systems to catalyze more new ideas - around how to effect systemic change toward restorative, regenerative businesses and economies.

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