Want to disrupt the workplace from within? Try breaking the fourth wall

by Natalie Hardwicke on behalf of the team at Ripple Effect Group.

You’ve likely heard of the “fourth wall” concept before. The term is used as a metaphor to describe the invisible or the imagined wall that separates an audience from a performance they are watching. For example, if you were to go to the theatre and watch a rendition of Hamlet, you would be watching actors perform as characters on a stage, telling a story and disclosing a world in which those characters live in. You as an audience member watch the performance through the invisible fourth wall – the veil of illusion that supposedly separates you from the actors, whilst the performances on stage unfold as though the wall does not exist. The actors pretend that their characters are real within the world of that stage, and you the audience are not there watching. In other words, the actors pretend the stage has all four walls up and only the world of the performance exists.

But what about those instances when actors acknowledge your presence as an audience member, or they break character? This is otherwise known as “breaking the fourth wall”. In cinematic speak, it would be when actors accidentally or purposefully talk into the camera lens, or in literary circles, when a narrator stops mid-story to address the reader. This break is seen as an interjection that suspends, temporarily, the illusion of there being a performance taking place – of lifting the veil in which the only boundary that exists between the audience and the stage is the one we imagine as being there.

Imagine, now, this fourth wall concept being applied to a workplace context. For example, employees of an organisation going to work every day and “performing” on their workplace stage. The audience, as the observers of these employee performances, are the internal departments trying to implement digital solutions onto these performers; such as Human Resources, Internal Communication, and the C-Suite team. The people from these areas seek to monitor and observe what it is that employees “do and say” on the workplace stage. However, and much like any staged performance, the story the characters (in this case, the employees) tell is one in which the audience do not control the action. They can only observe and in turn infer meaning, for themselves, of what the story being told is saying to them. Once they have some meaning, they can decide to do something with their newfound knowledge.

Let’s pretend then that you as an audience member are someone working in one of these internal teams. You watch the performance of employees and you notice that some of them are not talking with each other. As a result, you tell the Director and the writer – the people behind such performances – that something needs to change. You suggest that new props be added on stage to help make communication and interaction easier for these employees, such as placing a watercooler in the corner, and even bringing in new characters to help shape a new stage performance. The audience has essentially given feedback for what could make the play “better”, and so the Director decides to hire some “cameo” performers, and buy some new props, to help achieve this end.

Now, in writing this post, I myself need to break the fourth wall and speak to you, the reader. What I have just described to you is how some of our clients, at the Ripple Effect Group, have approached their organisation and our work. They have viewed their organisation from an audience perspective, and believe their employees need to communicate and collaborate better with one another on the workplace stage. The solution our clients have for this is to introduce social networking technology, and we as the consultants specialising in this area, have been hired as the cameo cast to help change employee performances. We are, in theatre speak, there as improvisers – so our ability to engage with employees means their current role, in this particular scene of the organisational story, is still being played as one of employee. They simply will be, from the audience perspective, acting in the role of workshop participant. So, let’s return now as the curtain call has just been made.

We as the cameo consultants enter the stage and begin to interact with the employees. We want to understand their world and the character roles they play on stage, but we also want to hear how each of them perceives the overall story being told. In organisational speak, this would be the company’s vision and its direction. When we start responding and interacting with these employee performances, we begin to realise that employees are already communicating with each other – they’re just not doing it in a way the audience can (or wants to) see. To again break the fourth wall, the employees are using shadow IT. So, what we do as cameo performers, is decide to speak to the audience directly. We yell out to them as they sit observing us, and we ask them why they want to change the stage props when, from our point of view, the story on stage is making a lot of sense.

From the audience perspective, we have just committed the cardinal sin that you’re not meant to make in theatrical performance, and that is to break the fourth wall. The audience, as a result, begin to squirm in their seats. They don’t know if they are supposed to answer us back, or whether they should be demanding a refund at the box office. The story they are now being told is not the story they paid to see – their expectations of character performance are not being met. Not only that, but the observation of us breaking the fourth wall is something the employees on the stage with us also observe. They too begin to break the fourth and act out of character – of behaving outside of the organisational employee role they are expected to be performing. They too begin to say and do things their job description says they cannot say and do, and they too start speaking to the audience directly; all the while the play itself continues to go on. The Director cannot yell “cut” as we are all still on air during the 9-5 performance grind.

What has happened, in such a scenario, is that the audience are having their assumptions and expectations challenged. Their view of reality is being disrupted. Yet, funnily enough, this is exactly what a stage performance is meant to do to its audience – whether the fourth wall is broken or not. Whenever you go to the theatre to watch a play, as an example, the message you are meant to take away is never about the explicit story being told. In other words, what you see and hear in the performances on stage is something that is intended to change you as an audience interpreter. In the organisational scenario, it would be like those internal audience teams realising that the fourth wall does not actually exist, because they too are meant to either be on stage with the employees, or they are backstage supporting the performance.

The idea of employees and consultants breaking the fourth wall – of challenging how organisations shape and interpret their own story – is a key idea that will be explored at the DISRUPT.SYDNEY conference. Come and join our workshop on “Saying what is not said: using personas to convey meaning rather than achieve a technological end

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