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  • Writer's pictureMarie Tseng

Hacking HR Interview

On September 29, 2021, Cultural Impact and KL Shakespeare Players organised a showcase in collaboration with Hacking HR Suisse Romande.

As a follow up to this session Marie Tseng and Gregory Henno speak to Tom Waterhouse to share more insights about Exchange Theatre.

So, I'm here with Marie Tseng and Gregory Henno - delighted to see you again. We got together about a month ago to do an event for Hacking HR in Switzerland, which was wonderfully received by everyone. And we said at the time that it would be nice to have another chat, and maybe learn a little bit more about Exchange Theatre. So here we are for a little conversation. Maybe Marie, you can start by introducing yourself?

Marie Tseng: My name is Marie Tseng, French, based in Malaysia. Most of my work is in diversity and inclusion. I help organisations, teams and individuals develop cross-cultural competencies. I work with large multinational companies in Malaysia and other countries. In that space, we work together with Gregory and KLSP Exchange Theatre.

Thank you. And Gregory?

Gregory Henno: My name is Gregory. I'm an actor and a director, living in Malaysia now for eight years. I collaborate with Marie and the KL Shakespeare Players to develop Exchange Theatre - a kind of theatre we use to help people to speak up in difficult circumstances, conditions, and situations. It helps people to be more comfortable when they have something not really nice to say, or if they want to express their opinion.

So, how did the two of you actually meet and begin working together?

Marie Tseng: In the field of soft skills and behaviour change, the biggest challenge that we all face - as HR practitioners, as trainers, as coaches - is “How do we walk the talk? How do we encourage people to put into action what they have understood cognitively?” This has always been my challenge until I met Gregory.

Exchange Theatre offers a platform for people to engage in conversations that are a little bit difficult, to concretely try new ways of doing things and to take the first step towards behaviour change.

Can you explain a little bit how, then, you would start working with an organisation to use this technique? How would the first conversations go? What would you be talking about?

Marie Tseng: Exchange Theatre is one of the tools that fills the gap in a cultural transformation program.

When we start a project with the client, we need first to identify what is the real challenge that they are trying to solve. In the field of L&D, sometimes managers just want to tick the box - “We need to do a program on this problem.” But what is the real impact? And what are we really trying to achieve for the organisation, both in terms of behaviours and in terms of performance? So, that's the beginning of the conversation: What are we trying to achieve with this tool?

Can you give maybe a couple of examples of the kind of objectives that people have given you?

Marie Tseng: Some examples of the topics that we have addressed:

  • How do we create a learning organisation?

  • How do we develop a growth mindset in our group?

  • How do we make people more aware and change their behaviour when it comes to safety? (In the oil and gas industry or construction industry.)

  • How do we create deeper cultural understanding and better communication within our teams?

These are topics that are very suitable to use with Exchange theatre.

When you've got this topic, how do you two come together to design something, to imagine the way in which you're actually going to use Exchange Theatre? I imagine it's a collaboration between the two of you, right?

Gregory Henno: I don't think we are going to imagine anything! First, we start to discuss with the client. We tell them, “Okay, we don't know you, we don't know your organisation. So help us understand better what your issue is and what your people think about this issue.” We first listen to the point of view of our “sponsor” from HR or the leader of the organisation. And then, we interview 10 to 15 employees in the organisation, to hear their perspectives on this issue. We conduct this series of interviews, to understand deeper, and to have multiple points of view on a particular issue.

And then once you've got this idea, do you begin to build a script, or do you improvise? How do you go about it?

Marie Tseng: There is very little improvisation. Exchange Theatre is a very structured process. When people see the end product, they feel that it's so easy. And we often have clients when they've seen an Exchange Theatre who say, “We can give you a scenario!” But it's a little bit more complex than just coming up with a story. The purpose of the scenario is to open conversations, to help people realise what they're currently doing, that may not have the desired impact for the organisation.

Seeing our own blind spot is complicated for anyone in an organisation, at an individual level (“How are my behaviours really perceived?”), and at a team level (“How do we interact and how are we perceived within the organisation?”). At an organisational level, we can also have those blind spots. That's why our series of interviews is extremely powerful. We work with questions.

Another tool in our toolbox is WIAL Action Learning. Through Action Learning group coaching sessions we can better identify the real problem. What the client thinks initially might not be what the real problem is in the organisation.

Action Learning, the interviews, the conversations that we conduct are already, in themselves, extremely valuable for the client. And because our interviews are conducted mostly by actors, and not by professional trainers, it puts the respondents in a very different space. We bring them out of their comfort zone, just by being curious and asking questions while creating a compassionate and safe environment for them to share.

Through this process, we understand better what the problem is, we collect the lingo within the organisation, we collect stories and all this is the material we use to create a scenario that will be a concentrate of the challenges, issues, problems that the organisation is facing, regarding the topic that we identified with the client. Then the scenario is reviewed by our client to validate that it really feels like them.

And then once you have the scenario, what's the kind of ideal situation for introducing it to the staff? A big event with 100 people? Or do you work with smaller groups? How does it work most effectively?

Marie Tseng: You always have to go back to what you're trying to achieve? What is the problem that you're trying to solve? And when you talk about change behaviour, there are three levels:

  • First is the impact and the awareness. For people to change, they need to realise that they need to change. So that's where Exchange Theatre creates that moment that puts a mirror in front of people's faces when they say, “Yes, that's me sometimes”.

  • The second thing, once you've done that, is how do you open up and acknowledge your pitfalls and accept to be vulnerable to share your stories with your colleagues and connect the Exchange Theatre fiction to your workspace reality? So we follow Exchange Theatre with immediate facilitation, so that people can use the energy that came out of the theatre, to connect, exchange with their colleagues to see, acknowledge, and discuss what they can do to improve the situation.

  • And the third level is to actually solve the problem that we have acknowledged. For that, we can use other methods to sustain the learning and lead the group towards real solutions that will improve performance in the organisation.

So how do you do that?

Marie Tseng: Sometimes, creating that first impact can be with a large group of people. For example, a client says, “We are introducing the topic of diversity and inclusion in our organisation, we want a powerful event that everybody will be part of.”

So, online we can go up to 150 to 200 people in a room, although our preferred number is below 70. Because, as you experienced in the session, Tom, it's really important to have everyone on camera. This is not a show, it's not a movie that people are watching. It's an interactive experience. So people being on camera is essential. And when the numbers are too big, then they tend to “hide”.

Then, if you want to be even more impactful and go into skills building, I would say a smaller number of people, about 30 people so that we can have a facilitation that also includes actors.

Then, we not only have the actors during the Exchange Theatre, but they also come back in breakout rooms with participants to continue working on the skills and new behaviours. We often hesitate to try something different, because we're unsure of how others will receive it. And if it's a situation where the stakes are too high, we revert back to what we know. Because we don't want to take risks. So, with actors in the breakout rooms, people have a space to try different behaviours and get immediate feedback from the actors.

So, are the actors shifting in and out of character in those sessions? So they may be role playing scenarios, and then offering some kind of feedback on what is said, from the position of the actor, or from the position of the character that the actor is playing?

Marie Tseng: We're used to having breakout rooms where we have discussions, we have a topic to talk about. Here, participants join the breakout room with our actor who is immediately in character and participants need to interact with him or her to obtain a specific outcome.

So, if it's about unconscious bias, for instance, how do I make the actor realise that what they are saying here is totally unacceptable? Then in plenary, we have a debrief, where participants both share how they felt about having that conversation. And most importantly, the actor shares how it felt to be in that conversation with people - and that's usually very powerful, because you have the immediate feedback on the impact of our behaviours.

As you mentioned, obviously, we did an online event, but pre-COVID I imagine most of the work that you were doing was actually in physical presence with people. I wanted to ask you, Gregory, Marie refers to the energy - how does the energy feel different from the actor's perspective in a physical performance or an online performance? Do you need to adapt?

Gregory Henno: Well, we adapt… I don't know. The machine is so strong. When I say the machine, I mean the structure as Marie said. We have a very strong structure in Exchange Theatre, that is exactly the same for physical or online. But online, the nature of the experience changes. It was complicated for us at the beginning to understand that.

For me in particular, as a lead master, because before, I had the audience in front of me. I could see them move, see what the acting meant directly to the person. Now it's impossible. I tried to do that. But it's really complicated for the leadmaster.

Also the nature of the experience changes for the spectators. Face to face, it's a collective experience: you can feel that the person next to you thinks the same as you do: “Oh, you had the same reaction.” You can feel the connection with the other spectators. And we are with a live audience. Online, I think it's now a more personal experience. In one of our sessions people said it was really good for self-reflection: I'm alone in front of my screen, actors helped me to think about myself, my behaviour.

It was a challenge to bring Exchange Theatre online, as we need to have the same energy, the same type of interaction with the audience. So we had to find a way to recreate that online. I think we did that very well, because people are as engaged as in a physical performance - they share with us their opinions, their doubts, their fears. And they say, “Oh, yes, it's really useful.” So the nature of the experience is different, but the impact is still there.

And you've already mentioned, obviously, that it's not just the performance, if you like, it's not just the event of the Exchange Theatre. There is also follow-up. Can you talk us a little bit through what happens typically after an event?

Marie Tseng: That's also part of the conversation with the client. Exchange Theatre, as you experienced it, opens up a lot of questions.

We recently did a session on diversity for a Malaysian organisation. And through the conversation, somebody said, “Well, yes, I recognize myself here having doubts when I have to hire a woman who potentially might be pregnant in the next few months. I see now that it's not acceptable to take that factor into account, But I also have my KPIs and my performance to achieve. So how do we, as an organisation” - and she turned to the HR team - “How do we address that?”

So, clients need to be ready for that follow-up.

First, for individuals and teams after every session, we document very thoroughly what happened, what topics were raised? What are people asking for, as a follow-up? What are the skills that they need to really work on, develop, build - in order, again, to achieve the objective we had - to solve the problem that we saw initially?

And also sometimes at an organisational level from a process perspective - what else can we do? In this journey, we use facilitation after Exchange Theatre, we use action learning coaching, to encourage people in different teams to work together to solve very concretely that problem, while working on the skills that they want to develop. It has to be a long term process and project for the organisation because you don't change behaviour with a three and a half hour session. Exchange Theatre is a stepping stone.

So the session you did with us was a showcase. Is this something you do on a regular basis? Are there opportunities for people to get a sense of what you're doing through this kind of event?

Marie Tseng: Well, that will lead me to answer back the question you asked about online versus face-to-face performances. Working online has also opened many opportunities for clients, because on a virtual stage they can engage people from different locations. For us , it's easier to engage people for an hour online than to get them to a specific location. For the past two years, we have done regular public showcases, and that's why it was a pleasure to partner with Hacking HR Suisse Romande for that event. So we'll definitely keep you posted on upcoming sessions.

Well, I think, you know that the feedback we got was that the energy created - even in a showcase, even in something which was built around an example scenario, which wasn’t necessarily something that came from our experience and our specific needs - that this still created this very positive energy and that self-reflection that Gregory referred to. So you know, if you do more showcases, I can only encourage people to participate.

Marie Tseng: Yes, the scenarios are so compelling that it's very hard to sit back, either on the real stage or behind your computer, and not say anything. So Exchange Theatre has this compelling element that our script team lead by Gregory is amazing at putting together, and that's where it definitely goes beyond improvisation. It's a tool that is so solid that it creates a strong impact.

Gregory Henno: Here also, in our scenario, we don't say, “Okay, it's a very simple story, you have one bad character, one good character, and you are going to identify immediately, who is wrong and who is right.” No, here we are going to try to expose a complex situation and so participants have the chance to say, “Ah, at this moment, we can avoid that the character says that”, and I think it can be something you can react to without judgement.

In our scenario, that's the most important thing. People don't think we are here to judge them. We are really a tool in their hands. We are just actors at your disposal, don't hesitate, come and we are not going to judge you. Who are we to judge? We are just actors.

So I think people start to express, share their difficulties, their issues and recognize also, “Oh, it can happen to me”, because they feel it's a safe space, really - here, no one's going to judge me, so I can say whatever I want. And I can try. I can practice without any risk. We use the mediation of fiction, to come back to the participant's reality.

But maybe it's worth pointing out here that, you know, you did this showcase with us with a scenario which I believe you had actually developed for another client. And you know, people are wondering whether these events always take you in the same direction. Your reaction at the end of the event was really interesting, because you said the people in Europe who participated in the showcase reacted very differently at different points - the things that they really pointed out and focused on, were different from the ones which your audience in Asia had done. So, despite the fact that it's a very structured approach, you never really know exactly where it's going to go, what's going to come out of it, how people are going to react. And I guess from the actors’ perspective, it must be one of the joys of participating because you never really quite know how for a second session, the improvisation and so on is going to work.

Gregory Henno: That's why I continue to train the actors. We had this afternoon session on improvisation during three hours, and I continue to work with them to improve their skills to be naive, to be genuine, to be open and not to prepare in their mind anything because that's how actors can really receive the proposition of the spectator and be surprised or be puzzled by this new idea and improvise with the spectator. I think it's the most important thing for me, for the actors. It's not really comfortable for them, because there is always uncertainty. And that's, for me the funny part, but for the spectator to feel also, “Oh, it's not something they prepared - they have not prepared the answer in advance.” Spectators have to feel we are with them, really with them. And they have to conduct the train. And we, the actors, are going to follow and maybe challenge them a little bit, but they are the experts of the situation. So THEY can do something.

And I confirm that this was our experience!

Marie Tseng: This diversity of outcome that you mention, Tom, is an added value for an organisation.

When a company contracts us, it's not just for one show, because to create the scenario, it's quite an investment. But when we run 10 shows, 15 shows in an organisation, all the outcomes are different. All this is documented - that's a unique opportunity for HR, for management, to really know, understand, hear what's going on, at every level of the organisation. It's very different from having satisfaction surveys where you have set questions. Here, you hear really what the people have in their heart. It's an amazing tool to continue programs afterwards and to engage your teams and your people.

And I think that the spontaneity of people's reactions often reveals much more, or at least it's certainly complementary to what people will answer in a survey where they have time to think about how what I'm going to write here is going to be received and interpreted by people here. It's kind of unfiltered isn't it?

Marie Tseng: Completely! That's the value of Exchange Theatre but again, done in a compassionate manner. The actors are not trying to corner the participant, it's not to put anyone in a difficult situation. It's just to help people really express what matters to them and take immediate action.

So, Marie, Gregory, thank you so much for talking to me. I thank you so much for your intervention in the Hacking HR session. It was wonderful. And I think it's really something that deserves to be discovered by more people.

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