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Team performance: connecting off & on stage

A concert

As some of you might now, I sing. Recently I performed with my vocal group. We rehearsed week after week, even up until the last minute before the concert: how we would show up, take the stage, work together, what we could do if something went wrong, give each other feedback through eye contact….let alone: practising the keys, melodies, lyrics and last but not least, how we would be able to enjoy it all at the same time. This thorough preparation made it the success our audience told us it was.

A team dialogue about performance

The week before I discussed performance with a team of educators and their managers in a school. I asked them what the main differences are between top teams in sports or arts and professional teams in business like theirs. The answer we came up with is that top teams have ‘on’ and ‘off’ stage moments, while business teams have to perform continuously. There is no real ‘backstage’ to rehearse, give feedback or try out new things. To the greatest extent, the practice has to happen on the spot.

Need for front and back stage behaviour

As a student of sociology this ‘front’ and ‘back stage’ concept always stayed with me. It is originally portrayed in Erving Goffman’s book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ (1959), which at the time brought profound insight into the nature of social interaction and the psychology of the individual. Based on dramaturgy linking back as far as Shakespeare, Goffman suggests we have the need for two different ways of presenting our selves:

  • Front stage: when we are “on” for others. In order to present a compelling front, we are forced to fill the duties of the social role and communicate that consistently – without faults or frictions.

  • Back stage: the place where we let down our guard, indicating a more “truthful” type of performance. In the backstage, “the conflict and difference inherent to familiarity is more fully explored.”

Goffman believed that individuals build a strong barrier between the front and backstage, partly because the individual is vulnerable in the backstage and also in order to preserve the authenticity of the front stage performance.

As I stated earlier, high performance teams in arts and sports have a very explicit divide between the two stages. And there are other businesses too, such as in hospitality. I’ve heard stories where Disney still uses Goffman’s theory today in training to get employees to be so-called “show-ready.”

Bridging the gap: implications for leadership and team development

However nowadays for many highly educated professionals, who have to engage in complex situations, it is almost impossible to keep the ‘on’ and ‘off” stage completely separated. In every new situation strong action is needed, often in co-creation with the audience (client, patient, etc.). New colleagues come and go. The rules of the game evolve rapidly along the way. In high pressure situations the suppressed facts, feelings and frictions from the backstage frequently make an appearance. To learn and adapt more easily requires a mindset where front and back stage are closely connected.

How to connect front and back stage?

  • As a leader: Celebrate vulnerability within your team.

  • As team members: Share needs, questions and personal preferences.

  • Towards your ‘audience’: Experiment, explicitly call it that and create short feedback loops with the customer or client.

Singing season is now over. During evaluation yesterday we agreed to experiment, improvise and interact more with our audience next time. I’m sure that will increase our performance and most importantly, our fun. Can’t wait!


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