Acting for Performance

Expressed so well Meryl…

“Acting is not about being someone different, it’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.”

Your Coach Online   Written by Alan Rodway from Your Coach Online


In professional life we are all expected to perform at our best.  But we don’t always feel like behaving in ways that are required and so we have a fundamental challenge.  This is not about motivation nor how to perform when lacking motivation. It’s about acting against the feelings that won’t generate success.  It’s about acting for high performance.

For example, feeling shy but needing to speak with conviction, feeling embarrassed but needing to get involved, feeling confident but needing to invite other opinion, feeling angry but needing to portray understanding, feeling bored but needing to appear interested, feeling dislike of someone but needing to connect with them, feeling down but needing to lift someone up, feeling overwhelmed but needing to focus on someone, feeling impatient but needing to show patience, etc.  There are a myriad of examples where our feelings will impact negatively on what we are trying to achieve and so there is an obvious (but contentious) statement to make … We need to be good actors.

To say that we should, at times, be actors, usually draws criticism because it’s somehow construed as being less than authentic.  That’s not true though as long as the motive behind the acting is sincere and positive.  Take any of the examples above and the point is demonstrated that both the actor and the person on the other end of it benefit from the adjusted behaviour.  We don’t hesitate to encourage people to take themselves out of their comfort zones for self-improvement and we always promote behavioural change to grow leadership.  There is no difference.  The notion is simply that, to be effective, we all need to act some of the time when our natural feelings would otherwise lead us poorer outcomes.  To some degree, we all act anyway in terms of daily courtesies, tolerance of those we don’t like as much and so on, but this is broader and it’s about acting with positive intent.

Quite literally, going to some acting classes is not a silly thing for a professional to do.  It helps overcome inhibited behaviours, embarrassment, shyness, fear and the like.  And it trains people how to act out various emotions and states, such as confidence, concern, inquisitiveness, passion, dynamism, humility.  There is nothing sinister about this.  It’s simply about not acting out the emotion that won’t work and replacing it consciously and skillfully with the behaviour that will … with genuine motive.  Going to a few acting classes to learn how to control and portray impressions should be on everyone’s list who wants to be a leader.  It’s just that the word ‘acting’ has taken on such negative connotations outside the field of entertainment that it’s difficult to get the message through.

Too many professionals limit their success because of an inability to act.  They can’t influence enough people because of shyness or they don’t make it into leadership roles because they show their lack of confidence.  People go to public speaking courses to learn how to present (that’s acting) and that’s seen to be commendable but anything beyond that is not well regarded.  There is rarely a person who is the complete leader, manager, colleague or whatever, so everyone needs to alter some of their behaviours to improve and some of those alterations necessarily involve acting.  Just offering up ‘That’s not me’ doesn’t improve anything and nor does ‘But that’s how I feel’.

Too many professionals can’t act, don’t act, or can’t act well enough, and it hurts their careers, as well as their organisations.  The shy, the loud, the bullish, the fearful, the unfunny, the dominant, the flippant… all retain their rights without acting.  Natural communication from a human being cannot possibly work in all situations.  Different situations command different approaches to impact the outcomes positively. The shy need to come out of their shells, the loud need to tone down, the dominant need to ask more questions, the straight-laced need to put themselves out there, the flippant need to be more sincere, etc.  It’s just common sense that if someone wants to influence human behaviour (and therefore outcomes) then they have to communicate in ways that will work.  Not just in ways that come naturally.

Deeming acting insincere is only valid if the motive is impure.  And whilst it’s true that taking acting classes can be daunting, the reality is that the embarrassment lasts about two minutes and then it’s fun.  It’s about communication techniques and styles, not dishonest messages.  If a situation would benefit from someone acting upbeat then that’s honourable.  The fact that the person didn’t feel like doing it at the time because they were shy has to be overcome.  If a situation would benefit from a break in intensity by a more relaxed approach, then it should be acted out.  The fact that the person feels intense or tense about the situation must be disguised.

Try it at home even, by yourself, or with family members (it’s fun!).  First, act as though you are really angry (body language, body movement and spoken words) … for a minute.  Then act as though you are really sad, for a minute.  Then, confused.  Then, thoughtful.  Then, as though someone is making you laugh.  Then, jealous.  Then, hyperactive.  And so on.   What you will find very quickly and powerfully is that you are capable of acting out every emotion you can think of, at whim.  The exercise shows you that you can do it and it gives you practice in carrying it out.  This situates you much better for the real world when such behavioural and emotional control is for the good of the situation and for those around you.

If life was so easy that all we had to do was communicate naturally then everyone would be successful.  Improving your acting skills is a key way to improve your performance.  The world’s intelligence agencies train high-level personnel in how to act and communicate when under pressure, the world’s political leaders are trained in how to act in public, the best CEO’s receive training on how to handle the media, young sports people receive training on how to conduct themselves publicly and so on.  It can’t be below us normal people to get better at acting.

Imagine being able to act out passion when you’re feeling low, show strength when you’re lacking confidence, take control when you’re scared, command action when you’re feeling listless … none of these are dishonest.  They are all acting skills that will lead to better outcomes for people involved.

Ask yourself what advice a parent gives a child in Year 3 who dislikes the teacher …. “Act respectfully to your teacher”.  The child doesn’t like that advice because it’s unnatural and difficult but the advice was given in the best interests of the child as well as the teacher.  There is no difference between that situation and the adult professional world.  The motive is authentic, the advice is sound and the acting should be carried out.

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