Core magazine: Making sense of ourselves

10 April 2017

  • Exclusive article for Warwick Business School's magazine Core
  • WBS 'create space' designed to encourage creative learning
  • It acts as a 'deconditioning chamber' for students to unlearn habits
  • This helps become better leaders suggests academic Piers Ibbotson

It is not often that you walk through a business school and see rows of shoes, neatly placed outside a room.

Peering through the large curved window there are no tables and chairs, instead students are standing circled in their socks or bare feet.

This is the ‘create space’, a purpose-built drama studio in Warwick Business School’s new £30 million extension. It is the first business school in the UK, and possibly the world, to have one.

It provides a room in which students can be creative, acting out case studies, mini-plays and learning techniques used by actors. It is also available to all faculty in the business school to explore new approaches to teaching and learning.

The room has four projectors and screens, a sprung floor and a ceiling-mounted camera to film all the drama.

Inside teaching fellow Piers Ibbotson, a former Royal Shakespeare Company actor and director, imparts his craft. The create space is a “deconditioning chamber”, he says, in which students are encouraged to unlearn the habits they have acquired in life and learn new ways of behaving in order to become convincing leaders.

Simply entering the space challenges people’s conditioned responses because it is so different from the usual lecture theatre or seminar room, says Ibbotson, who is the author of The Illusion of Leadership: Directing Creativity in Business and the Arts.

“There are no chairs, the room is curved, and almost but not quite round,” says Ibbotson, one of several in the WBS Create team with a drama and theatre background including two National Teaching Fellows. “It has a flat floor with a surface that encourages you to run or jump or walk about.

“There are curtains to change the light and the texture of the walls and there is state-of-the-art technology to create light and sound, or fill the space with images. Everything about it is designed to offer a different context to the one we are conditioned to accept as a teaching space.”

This space helps students to explore their unconscious biases and ingrained expectations, he says. Learning the craft of acting takes this further.

“Actors are trained to develop an acute awareness of their bodies, their voice, facial expression, emotions and words in order to be able to create the effects on the audience that their performance requires,” says Ibbotson.

“This knowledge is profoundly useful to all of us. Every day, as participants in organisational life we are required to affect others, to influence, to persuade and to encourage. Being able to achieve these effects with integrity and grace is at the heart of good leadership.”

Students across the curriculum go through the same process as actors learning their craft.

Initially business students can find acting out a dramatic role mystifying, not to say terrifying. But they soon get the hang of it and end up learning more than if they simply engaged in playing the role of a marketing manager or CEO of a company.

Moreover, they benefit from the dramatic skills explained by professional actors, understanding how to influence a boardroom or give a convincing presentation.

“You need to get skills into your body, your fingers – your imagination,” writes Ibbotson in his book The Illusion of Leadership. “And this can only be done experientially.”

Creativity – defined as acting in or on the world in new and significant ways – is a powerful and universal force throughout the business world that intrinsically links it with the arts.

To motivate people and get them on board or to get a team fired up by an idea, managers need to take great care of how they express themselves. In the create space students are learning this self-discipline and awareness, just as actors do, though Ibbotson points out that the secret to great acting is not to act at all.

It is a notion that has some support from behavioural science. Research by Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science at WBS, suggests we are all acting, all the time.

“We’re continually improvising our beliefs, preferences and attitudes,” says Chater. “This means that situations we are in, and the ‘role’ we think we are supposed to be playing, can dramatically shift how we think, from one situation to the next.

“This means that we are not stuck with a particular repertoire of thoughts and behaviours; we can retrain ourselves to play a different role or character.”

Chater, whose MOOC (Massive Open Online Couse) The Mind is Flat on the Futurelearn platform is set to be turned into a book of the same title, argues that our everyday conception of how our mind works is profoundly misleading.

Chater, who is an adviser to the ‘Nudge Unit’, which began as a Cabinet think-tank and now works with governments around the world, argues that we are victims of an “illusion of mental depth.”

We imagine that our thoughts and behaviour arise from hidden motives and beliefs, but in reality we have to continually make sense of ourselves, actively creating our own “character” and working out which “story” we are in.

This is where Chater’s research links to what is being taught in the create space.

“Theatrical techniques are among the most powerful methods we have for helping us make better sense of ourselves, working together with other people, and training ourselves to let go of unhelpful or even destructive habits of thought,” says Chater.

“Playing with new ways of thinking, behaving and interacting with others, can help us become more thoughtful, ethical and effective managers.”

Students are learning through experience the truth of Shakespeare’s famous line: “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” 

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