Teaching Adaptability Through the Performing Arts

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Tuesday, January 17, 2023
By Ralf Wetzel
Photo by iStock/yagmradam
Leaders can learn how to manage chaotic and unpredictable situations by practicing theater and dance.
  • When managers face sudden crises, they are often too stressed to respond effectively.
  • Through improvisational exercises, students can learn to draw on their inner resources and build psychological safety with their colleagues.
  • By studying cognitive and noncognitive responses to emergencies, students can develop two different but complementary types of awareness.

In the business world, managers find themselves in unpredictable situations, from pandemics to wars to volatile economies. While leaders must be able to respond quickly and effectively, most feel flustered when they face the unexpected.

Under these circumstances, managers too often rely on the standard cognitive “plan and control” approach, which is the completely wrong strategy under disruptive conditions. During moments of surprise and discontinuity, the brain can feel trapped and paralyzed by fear, making it the least reliable partner for someone experiencing moments of panic. If future leaders are going to be able to make swift decisions and quickly adapt to change, they need to develop noncognitive, intuitive, and embodied reactions.

This is where learning improvisation can help. In improvisational theater, performers don’t know what’s going to happen next; they must adapt quickly to changing circumstances, make rapid decisions, and trust their fellow actors to help them through the scene. Somehow, they not only enjoy the improv, they seem to feel blissful doing it.

Business schools can help future leaders improve their adaptability by integrating the arts—and improvisational performance—into the MBA curriculum.

The Value of the Arts

I had to learn the hard way how valuable the arts can be to business programs. I originally joined Vlerick Business School in Brussels, Belgium, as a classic academic who focused on organizational theory, organizational development, and change management. Then, it all changed. An episode of depression at the beginning of my assignment at Vlerick brought me down.

When I discovered the performing arts—improvisational theater, clowning, movement, improvised dance, and yoga—it helped me turn my life around. That’s when I truly understood the impact that the arts can have on noncognitive practices and how they can teach individuals to deal with uncertainty and adaptability.

Since that time, I have developed an artistic side to my work, which I have linked closely to my teaching assignments. The surprising self-discovery of my artistic skills has led me to places I never dreamed of entering, like theater stages in Brussels and Ghent, or big international events such as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Brighton Fringe, and the Zagreb Clown Festival.

When we incorporate the performing arts into our business classrooms, students learn to access their emotions, understand their bodily cues, and help those around them feel psychologically safe.

By delving into the performing arts, I have learned that, in times of disruption, we can rely on two alternative sources of bold and courageous decision-making. The first is our interior world—our bodies and our minds. Both our bodies and our minds receive information, store knowledge, and learn adaptive behavior; and they can support each other. When the mind is in turmoil, the body can offer emotional safety and provide guidance for the next step. Unfortunately, most of us are absolutely untrained in the ways of sensing and employing physical impulses and emotional states. We often are unable to allow our bodies and minds to guide us in decision-making.

Our second source of assistance is our exterior world—our partners and our environments. When I experience uneasiness and discomfort within and around me, I have learned to focus on my partners, such as my colleagues, clients, stakeholders, and audiences. I have realized that everything and everyone around me can be my friend if I accept them for what they are and start to build relationships with them. If I’m with a group of people who are all trapped in anxiety, I do everything I can to make my partners feel psychologically safe, seen, and understood. That reduces their anxiety levels and motivates them to do the same for me. By accepting and reassuring each other, we can turn anxiety into curiosity and courage.

When we incorporate the contemporary performing arts into our modern business classrooms, our students can learn to access their own emotions, understand their bodily cues, and help those around them feel psychologically safe.

Today, I integrate different art forms into my research, teaching, and coaching as a way to help participants safely and playfully understand themselves so they can embrace transformational change. Participants have given me direct feedback about the eye-opening moments they had in my classes, and I have seen massive improvements in my teaching evaluations. Based on my experience, I believe the performing arts can have a transformational effect on business education for students as well as teachers.

Learning to Handle Disruption

Today, practically all of my courses include frameworks and exercises that stem from artistic practices. However, my modules that draw most extensively from arts-based interventions are Organizational Change, Building Effective Teams, and Change Management in the undergraduate program, and Management Skills and Leading in an Agile World in the master’s program.

I don’t discuss the arts framework with students at the beginning of any of these modules. Instead, I introduce the subject and have students consider it through rational and cognitive approaches. Then—using exercises from improvisational theater, clowning, and improvisational dance—I let them experience noncognitive, embodied leadership under conditions of disruption.

Improvisational exercises make it painfully obvious to students that cognitive and noncognitive processes offer two very different approaches to leading, following, and decision-making.

These exercises make it painfully obvious to students that cognitive and noncognitive processes offer two very different approaches to leading, following, and decision-making. The exercises also open space for students to develop these two kinds of awareness that are very different but complementary. During the rest of the class, I help them explore and rehearse how to joyfully capitalize on the unknown, rather than run away from it.

Here’s an example. In one exercise, I assemble five random students who represent an imaginary new board of directors who must hold a town hall meeting with their employees (the rest of the class) with literally no prep time. Until a second before they start presenting to the classroom, the students don’t know the industry, the core product, the name of the company, or the major crisis that led to the replacement of the previous board.

When students attempt to give their presentations before they know the frameworks of the performing arts, their efforts quickly fall apart. They are trapped in their own personal fear of failing, which disconnects them from the other group members as well as the audience.

Through improvisational exercises, students undergo intensive training in listening to other group members, accepting their ideas, and building on their suggestions. These actions help them create emotional safety for each other. They start to trust both their own intuition and the instant support of their colleagues, which enables them to create clear messages out of literally nothing.

Anxiety suddenly turns into curiosity and paralysis turns into courage. Stepping into an unpredictable and uncontrollable environment suddenly becomes an enjoyable treasure hunt. Students learn that there is always a treasure out there that they will miss if they fearfully run away too early. As a result of all these factors, the on-the-spot presentations become very powerful experiences.

Dancing Toward Trust

Here’s a second example. In my class on Leading in an Agile World, I use movement exercises led by professional Lindy Hop and tango dancers to teach students how to lead and follow in a world that requires improvisation. In an open classroom, students split into pairs and choose who will lead and who will follow as they dance.

When the music starts, each leader must use nonverbal skills to bring the follower to a self-chosen place in the room. A few minutes later, they switch roles. After a short debrief about what went well and what didn’t, new couples are formed, and this time, the followers must close their eyes. Again, after a few minutes, leaders and followers switch roles.

Classroom of business students gathers around to learn dance steps from professor

Students at Vlerick Business School learn dance movements as a way to develop their intuitive reactions and be better prepared to adapt to unexpected situations.

During the subsequent debrief, students discuss when they felt safe or unsafe when they were followers, and when they felt overwhelmed, anxious, or self-confident when they were leaders. They also debate how leaders can build or destroy trust in short-term relationships.

Newly formed pairs carry out the final round of exercises. Followers again close their eyes, but they are allowed to freely express themselves to the music; leaders are required only to make sure their partners don’t run into obstacles such as pillars or fellow students. Couples learn to empathetically observe each other, be inspired by the actions of their partners, and create their own “leadership dances.”

During the following discussion, students realize that, until this point, both leaders and followers were busy trying to control each other. But in this final exercise, they are free to start listening—to the music and to the environment. It can be a bliss-releasing moment in the leader/follower relationship.

Such work requires the teacher to carefully establish psychological safety in the first place. Improvised movement, especially when related to touch, requires participants to embrace mistakes warmly and leave behind embarrassment and shame. It also requires honest conversations about physical proximity during the pandemic era.

But it teaches lessons with amazing speed. I can spend days teaching frameworks about building trust, creating psychological safety, and unleashing creativity. But if I invite students to participate in interrelated movement, their bodies tell them everything within seconds. In an instant, it is clear whether someone feels well-led or well-followed. It is obvious how quickly trust can be built or destroyed. The lesson happens so fast because it’s actually not new—the knowledge is “stored” in a place in our bodies where we don’t consciously work.

A Series of Student Responses

When I introduce performing arts techniques into my classes, I tend to see my students experience a series of three reactions.

First, they feel surprise. Most students are not accustomed to physical and embodied work in the business classroom. But I teach without tables, with and without music, so there is movement all the time. Students also are surprised that these exercises and frameworks allow them to feel what it’s like to lead and follow during episodes of discontinuity and disruption.

Improvisational work helps students change their approaches to challenging conditions, embrace ambiguity, and feel more relaxed in unsettled situations.

Second, students begin to display curiosity. The improvisational work helps them change their approaches to challenging conditions, embrace ambiguity, and feel more relaxed and confident in unsettled situations.

Third, after doing so much relational work, students begin giving their classmates more attention and displaying empathetic, emotional care for each other. At the end of the day, these emotional connections are what create curiosity, courage, thrills, and joy.

‘Resilient, Adaptable, and Courageous’

Because uncertainty will always be a big part of the business world, business students will benefit greatly from learning how to thrive in chaotic moments. If they are exposed to improvisational theater, contemporary dance, mask work, or clowning, students will develop a full range of noncognitive, sensual, and embodied relationship-building skills.

Students who have mastered these skills will not display defensive, protective, or conservative behaviors when a crisis strikes and pushes them relentlessly out of their routines and into survival mode. Instead, they will embrace the situation and begin thinking strategically and effectively. By smartly combining cognitive and noncognitive ways of understanding human behavior, they are more likely to make high-speed and high-quality decisions.

Business educators need to discard the purely functionalistic way of teaching business and leadership. When we take a liberal arts approach to learning, we create future managers who are resilient, adaptable, and courageous—just like all the best performers.

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Ralf Wetzel
Associate Professor of Organisation and Applied Arts, Vlerick Business School
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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