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In early June Act Out travelled up to Karratha, a booming mining town in the Pilbarra, to work with a group of local health workers.

THE PROBLEM WE WERE ASKED TO HELP WITH: Clients are not engaging.

The brief from the client had originally been to learn more engaging techniques for working with the community. They were experiencing difficulty engaging certain groups and they wanted to do things differently.

The group was wonderful; they took to the activities with openness and enthusiasm. What became increasingly clear as we delved deeper into their collective experiences was that the main issue was not about engaging the community.

THE MORE PRESSING PROBLEM TAT EMERGED: Service providers in Karratha are struggling with the pressure of living and working in Karratha

What is ironic in a boomtown like Karratha; a town that is significantly contributing to the increased wealth of Western Australia, is that according to the participants, most of the issues relate to shortages.

Firstly, there is a chronic shortage of staff in the community services field and a high turnover; they are working too long for too little, and across a variety of roles.

Secondly, there is a shortage of accommodation; some of the participants were themselves experiencing the pressures of restricted and overpriced housing similar to their clients – this created an added level of stress.

Thirdly, there is a shortage of opportunities to debrief. Month after month without an opportunity to debrief can

Lastly, there is shortage of cultural awareness by employers about the realities of being an Aboriginal worker. Sometimes being employed, earning money and having a vehicle at your disposal, means family and relatives are always making demands.

‘If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions’   Albert Einstein

We started off thinking that the main problem was engaging the community and were going to practise engagement techniques to address that. However, after a closer examination in a fun and safe space, it became clear that there were other issues. And no matter how many engagement techniques they might learn, these issues were seriously affecting service providers and, as a result, undermining their work with communities.

‘It’s like washing your feet with your socks on!’ shouted out a young, Tibetan red-faced truck-driver from the back of the room. The other men laughed and the room was suddenly animated as the young man moved to the front and started to demonstrate for my benefit. The local outreach officer translated as we watched the cheeky driver pretending to wash his foot, tugging and making faces at his dirty, grey sock. He was referring, of course, to the discomfort of wearing a condom.

We were conducting a focus group on attitudes and behaviours around safe sex and STIs in Lhasa, Tibet. As a rapidly growing city with a high influx of temporary migrant populations in the booming western region of China, Lhasa was home to a population deemed ‘at risk’ of contracting and spreading HIV if the virus were to arrive.

Safe sex education was receiving a lot of resistance. There was a high prevalence of STIs among people of all ages, indicating that condoms were not being frequently or adequately worn. Local women often reported that men refused to wear condoms. These, in turn, were taking serious STIs back to their unwitting partners. The scene was perfect for an HIV epidemic – it was no laughing matter.

But at that moment, among this group of Tibetan men, the laughter and the actions of the young man frantically rubbing his feet, even I had to laugh and found it hard to not agree that wearing a condom was an unpleasant alternative.

Not long after I sat in my office feeling deflated and impotent; our workshops, training sessions and outreach efforts seemed to be changing very little. The interviews and focus groups we were conducting showed that the connection between actions, consequences and ability to do something differently was not being felt.

How could I get the young man to see his role in transmitting disease to his family? I thought back to the actions, the theatrics; the laughter, there was so much connection and understanding in that moment, all of us watching and feeling exactly what they young man meant. The moment was aesthetic, it was expressive and creative; its physicality and joyous emotion was key to everyone engaging in what the young man wanted to convey.

The reason I am sharing this story with you is because that was a decisive moment for me. It held within it values like engagement, self-expression, freedom, joy, inclusion, empathy, laughter & creativity. These are values that I realised at that moment needed to be present when trying to transform serious negative behaviours and issues. Not long after, I came back to Perth and founded Act Out and those are some of the values that we operate by in the behaviour change work we do with individuals, communities and organisations.

What are the values of your organisation? Does everyone know them? What are your own personal values? Are they aligned to those of your organisation?

The answer to theses questions can shed clarity on many of the issues experienced by organisations today.

Knowing our own values helps us identify people and situations that don’t support those values and people and situations that do; it helps to set goals and to differentiate your goals from those of others; knowing our values allows us to make decisions about important issues; in effect, knowing our own values lets us know who we are and what matters to us in and outside our organisation[1].

If you are not sure of your values, you could start by going to a website like or and having a look at the long list presented.

Or maybe you can think back to a time when your values became very clear to you, perhaps because they were threatened or praised. Or, like me and the laughing Tibetan with the dirty sock, you too had an understanding that came to you not from what someone said but from what they did.

If you have any stories to share about values and instances that made them very clear to you, I would love to hear from you.

[1] Evans, P & Hargreaves, D. (2010) Values-Driven Leadership, Melbourne: Tilde University Press, 18-19.

Research has consistently shown that people who are intrinsically motivated are more satisfied in their work, have greater commitment to tasks and have lower levels of absenteeism. They concentrate longer, are more adaptable, have more empathy and come up with more creative ideas.

These are qualities that organisations want in today’s climate of constant change and uncertainty. Yet it is not easy to get these in employees because many aspects of an organisation’s culture and processes get in the way. Time constraints, micromanaging, and fear of being honest can be major obstacles to a happy, productive workplace.

One effective way is to increase motivation is use activities and games derived from theatre and the arts to explore, examine and safely express what is really happening in the workplace.  A number of companies such as the Perth Airport, the Department of Child Protection and the Department of Treasury have used these theatre games and exercises to help staff experience, identify and discuss what motivates or causes dissatisfaction at work.

In one recent workshop staff enacted many moments throughout the day in which they were interrupted by managers giving them little things to do which took them away from their main task and drained their ability to put their creative energy into their high priority work.  While having lot of fun and laughter during the improvisation, they realized that these situations resulted in them being busy but were dissatisfied because they had not accomplished anything effectively.

While the culture and leadership were positive, staff felt they had no control or autonomy in the work.  Because this was shown in a playful activity and their managers were present, the managers also laughed when they saw the undermining effect that these interruptions had on the team.

There was a feeling of relief as the employees expressed their frustrations while at the same time the managers identified their role in the breakdowns. The session then rehearsed the ways section managers could give team leaders more autonomy but still be confident that the production schedule would be achieved.

These theatre based workshops and training explore the three basic needs of intrinsic motivated: self-determination; use of an individual’s skills; and the need to feel positive about what we do.

Self-determination is experienced when an individual has sufficient autonomy and support to determine for themselves how to do their job.  Employees want to use their skills and to be challenged and grow. They also need to feel they have the skills necessary to do their job well. And finally, people want to have positive feelings about their work environment and other people.

Workshops using theatre and acting skills allow people to have fun while being fully open and honest. Rather that talk about difficulties they get to see, feel and experience them in a fun and playful way.  Many profound insights are revealed during moments of people acting out situations they experience at work.  These insights and demonstrations are then used to solve problems in ways that involve people’s hearts as well as their minds.

Everyone would like to work in a workplace where they are trusted to make decisions and where they are capable, happy and valued. Once leaders realize this is also the best way to increase productivity and creativity, they will build our workplaces with a lot more laughter and play.

Written in collaboration with Ron Cacioppe – Integral Development

Here are four wonderful resources about play, engagement, creativity and arts-based approaches to problem solving:

1. From Work Place to Work Space by Pamela Meyer – create dynamic engagement in organisations by shifting the existing mindset that places play and work in opposition.

2. Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko – a comprehensive collection of creative thinking processes to activate creativity and generate ideas.

3. Creative Problem Solving for Managers – move from using the ‘tried and tested’ solutions to challenges to trying out creative possibilities by accessing the creative potential existing within your organsation.

4. Engaging Performance by Jan Cohen Cruz – a wide ranging anaysis of how performance is used to socially engage communities to problem solve and address existing issues and challenges.

Seriously Playful, Playfully Serious

“Work and play are words used for the same thing under differing conditions”

                                                                        Mark Twain

For decades we have been aware of the importance of play in the development of children; play teaches us how to share, to self-direct, to empathise; through play we learn to socialise, to explore; to use our imagination.  Increasingly, evidence is also pointing to the benefits that play has on adults especially in fostering creativity and enhancing relationships and performance in the workplace.

Most of us have grown up believing that there is a distinction between work and play. Work is serious and important and play is frivolous and childish. And yet research is pointing to play being an effective, even necessary, space from within to create and problem solve.

In their article ‘Ain’t Misbehaving, Taking Play Seriously in Organisations’, Statler, Roos and Victor explain that play has an important, even crucial role in the success of organisations; in particular those that are striving for change.

Firstly, play enhances our cognitive and emotional capacity. Processes that help us interact with our surroundings and one another are developed through play. For instance, taking in new information and assimilating it to our existing concepts, or accommodating what we already know as we learn more about particular subjects; in short, play helps us become complex adult thinkers.

Further, our capacity to imagine is developed through play. When we play dress up or play cops and robbers, we not only mimic adult behaviours that we see around us; we also imagine what it might be like to be in certain situations, what it feels like to be somebody else, from this space we develop empathy and ‘ethical judgment’. 

According to psychologist and play specialist Dr Peter Gray from Boston College, play can put the mind into a state that ‘…is uniquely suited for high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all sorts of creative endeavours’

He talks about the general feeling of freedom, of feeling ‘this is exactly what I want to be doing right now’; a state that may or may not involve laughing and fun but that is always conducive to a ‘mutually voluntary’ participation; a relationship of high level of dynamic engagement and willingness between participants that are there because they want to be.

While it is mostly children that can stay in this 100% play state, even the degrees of playfulness that adults can bring to their intended work purposes can add a level of freedom that can positively affect engagement and productivity.

The ultimate freedom, as Gray points out, is being able to stop playing. And research suggests that having this level of self-direction and freedom when tackling difficult work tasks can often create a feeling of play, leading to greater focus and productivity.

‘…the relationship between work and play cannot be considered mutually exclusive, and that any coherent theory of organisational life must account both for work and play,’ state Statler et al.

“To stimulate creativity one must develop a childlike inclination to play and the childlike desire for recognition”                                                                                    Albert Einstein

When it comes to the positive effect of play on creativity IDEO’s Tim Brown is a strong advocate. He explains that from his experience there are three major ways in which play and creativity or generating ideas are linked.

First, he reminds us that children spend 50% of their play time in construction, or play building and developmentally this is a form of learning. This’ learning with our hands’ is one of the important contributions that play makes to creativity.

The second characteristic is that play is all about exploration, trying out new ideas and experimenting which includes being free to make mistakes without being concerned about being wrong.

Sir Ken Robinson, in his famous TED talk ‘Schools Kill Creativity’ tells a story about a young girl in a classroom who had not been very interested in school work but she was very engaged when they did some drawing. The teacher saw the girl’s increased interest and asked her:

‘What are you drawing?’

‘I’m drawing a picture of God,’ the little girl said.

‘Nobody knows what God looks like,’ she teacher told her.

‘They will in a minute!’ responded the child.

The young child has not concept of being wrong. Form within this kind of freedom to try anything new ideas and innovate can sprout more readily.

Thirdly, acting out different roles during play is a great spark for the imagination, it’s how children learn to empathise and learn

This has certain implications for organisations that are prioritising engendering creativity and innovation among their workers and who want to increase productivity and satisfaction.  Likewise, organisations that are managing change can make use of the usefulness of play activities in the development and adaptation of cultural identities.

At Act Out we work on the premise that a key ingredient in organisational development and successfully adapting to the volatility that organisations face lies in blurring the boundaries that have been constructed between work and play.

 ‘Building resistance to misconduct is part of core business.’

Tony Warwick,

Senior Investigator

WA Corruption & Crime Prevention Commission

29 June 2011

What happens when at work you are asked to do something which goes against your core values or ethics? What do you do or say when you are expected to go with the flow but against your own grain?

Standing up to misconduct or unethical ways of behaving at work, was the theme of a recent forum organised by the Corruption & Crime Prevention Commission in Perth. With representatives from local government, academia, and large state institutions like the Police and the Education Department, the forum explored the issue in a candid and practical way with four main points standing out:

  1. Resistance to misconduct is core business – employers need to standardise responses and set up incentives for employees to be able to express themselves
  2. Mechanisms should be build into the change management policy that allow this to be possible
  3. Leaders play a key role in aligning personal values through behaviours and reemphasising the personal at work – what really matters to employees?
  4. Preparation is key – through creating new or using existing programs that tackle this issue in a comprehensive and experiential way

This last point is of particular interest to me – the easy part is to establish policy and standardise responses but the real crunch comes when the individual is face to face with the decision – what will I do about this right now?

According to the Giving Voice to Values program coordinator at the University of Western Australia, Dr David Webb, there are certain common inhibiting arguments that prevent people from making a decision aligned with their values. These can pop up when faced with the dilemma:

  1. ‘Everyone does it’ 
  2. ‘It doesn’t hurt anyone’
  3.  ‘It’s not my responsibility’
  4. ‘I don’t want to hurt my team’.

Dr Webb describes the UWA Business School program, developed by former Harvard academic Dr Mary Gentile, as preparatory. It gives participants an opportunity to script and rehearse possible scenarios they may come up against.

As an organisational transformation consultant, I can vouch for the power of scripting and rehearsal to prepare employees to tackle challenging encounters or address difficult interactions. Changing the culture of an organisation requires new behaviours, amny of which will be unfamiliar and need rehearsing.

While a cognitive understanding is crucial when creating new behaviours, a physical and aesthetic experience is vital for a sustained and effective change to take place.

Other speakers at the seminar included Jonathan Throssell, CEO of Shire of Mundaring, who attributes the low 8% staff turnover at Mundaring to aligning personal values and the real needs of employees to the workplace.  People are not just clogs in a machine and a strong organisational culture supports people in what really matters to them. The leadership of the organisation is responsible for modelling this; for letting employees know that they are able to stand up for what they value.

Tony Flack, from the WA Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit was stern and realistic, ‘…it’s not easy but …managing misconduct should be part of core business…not an add on,’ he said during his presentation on the Police Department’s committed drive to change the organisational culture through incentives and supporting resilience.

Equally frank was Eamon Ryan the Acting Executive Director of the Department of Education, ‘…integrity in decision making is not practised enough’. He reiterated the need for mechanisms and described the Department’s Standards and Integrity Directory created unded the new portfolio.

‘It’s about developing a culture of candour, openness and transparency….what would an organisation look like if each individual was able to give voice to their values when they needed to?’ Dr Webb asked.

How does your organisation measure? Can you voice your values?

Below is flier for up coming workshop – it will be great fun and you will take lots of useful, immediately applicable tools with you!!

In my work with organisations it is often my goal to facilitate right brain thinking – I want clients to access kinaesthetic and emotional intelligences, their use of metaphor, improvisation and story-telling; in effect we work towards gaining access to creativity and imagination to compliment left-brain thinking and generate holistic and engaging problem solving.

Generally, the obstacle to creative problem solving is that we are conditioned to rely heavily on our left brain functions and lose our agility in imaginative, creative thinking as we get stuck in ordered, reasonable and logical thinking.

However, as was recently brought up at the Family Pathways Network Conference on Mental Health and the Family Law System, being stuck in right brain emotionally reactive thinking can be equally unproductive.

Megan Hunter, an expert in conflict resolution from the Arizona-based Conflict Resolution Institute in the US, highlighted that often there is a pattern in the behaviours of people who are repeatedly involved in conflict through the courts. She referred to High Conflict Personalities – characters that tend to take up a disproportionately higher ratio of time and attention from service providers. You probably know exactly who this refers to but Ms Hunter and Dr George Lipton from the University of Western Australia both outlined a few characteristics.


They may or may not fall under the label of some of the more common personality disorders such as narcissistic, histrionic, antisocial or borderline personality disorder, but they display similar fear-based behaviours as well as a lack of self awareness and lack of flexible adaptation.

These characters have no idea why they are the way they are. They don’t actually realise that they are being unreasonable and contributing to their own problem, or that they affect other people – they lack self awareness.


In addition, their thinking is inflexible and rigid, prone to extremes; it’s all or nothing, black or white. They jump to conclusions and everything is an attack on them, they project their emotions and fears onto others. They may see you as the best one moment and quickly devalue you the next. There are several reasons for this behaviour, but most interestingly for us is what is going on in their brains.


The corpus callosum – a bundle of nerves that acts as a bridge between the right and the left brain – is apparently smaller and thinner in the brains of high conflict personalities.

This means that they struggle to move from one way of thinking to another; they effectively remain in a right brain, fast, defensive thinking pattern where they distort and exaggerate situations.

As professionals, we have been trained to respond to problems by attempting to give feedback and elicit a logical and reasonable way of seeing. ‘This will not work with this type of personality,’ said Ms Hunter.

‘They cannot access their logical left brain thinking, they cannot process information back and forth cross the corpus callosum to formulate logical and reasonable thoughts.’

What is more, the amygdala, a small mass of tissue inside the brain that is triggered when we go into a crisis situation, can remain constantly turned on in these individuals further hindering their ability for logical and analytical thought processes.

There is also proof, added Ms Hunter, that the mirror neurons, cells that are understood to influence how we learn empathy by mirroring, are also deficient in high conflict personality individuals. They did not learn empathy when it was being modelled to them as children.

This all leads to a need for ways to communicate with high conflict personalities that give us access to the right brain and allow them to cross over into the left brain.


High conflict personalities respond well to E.A.R. statements – statements, suggests Ms Hunter, which let them know that you Empathise, that they have your Attention and that you Respect their efforts. This does not mean that you agree, but that you are listening to them.

‘When they are really unmanageable ask them to make a list,’ laughingly suggests Ms Hunter, who reminds us that these personalities need a lot of structure and making a list can be a quick way to get them into ordered, structured thinking.

Because they are not easily able to reason, to listen to logic, or to assimilate any feedback or insights that you may have for them, they need a different approach. An approach that somehow enables them to access their own problem solving skills so they can stop blaming you and get insights into their emotions and eventually their problems.

Engaging easily angered, emotional clients, dealing with a lot of problems, has been one of my areas of expertise, especially with my work with perpetrators of violence at Act Out (

While listening to Ms Hunter and Dr Lipton, I thought about the many activities and techniques that I employ in my work that connect people directly to their right brain.

At the same time, the divergent or listing techniques in creative problem solving take people in and out of free and structured thinking.

I started to see another reason why the aesthetic and right brain activities were so successful, and how they may be used to work in the opposite direction. Instead of enabling people to move from predominantly left brain to right brain thinking, the techniques could be used to facilitate movement across in the opposite direction, towards reason, logic and the structure necessary to analyse and receive insight into difficult situations.