Years ago, as a jobbing actor, I used to fill in between acting gigs doing temporary admin work in various businesses, government departments and other organizations. I was struck then by how many of the workers I encountered seemed stressed-out in their jobs, to the point where it was making them unhappy. Often the worst cases were those in supervisory or management roles. They often seemed bowed-down by the weight of responsibility, and frustrated by their inability to influence and lead in the way they felt they should be doing.

One particular manager, Debbie, with whom I’d built a level of trust, confided one day that she was having a hard time trying to get the best out of Paul, one of her direct reports. Paul was a talented and hard worker with a bright future ahead of him – or so she’d thought when he started. Lately though, he’d been “coasting” – just getting by on the bare minimum. She knew he was capable of so much more, and had made it her mission to re-ignite his passion for the role by motivating him somehow.

Debbie had addressed the issue with Paul on a number of occasions, and had suggested all kinds of ideas and initiatives to rekindle his enthusiasm – additional responsibility, mentoring, development opportunities, flexible working – Paul even agreed to try some of them, and there’d been improvement for a while, but it had never lasted.

Back then, I’d never heard of Performance Management (I’m not sure anyone had – it was a long time ago!), not to mention Influencing Skills or Leadership Presence & Impact – and in any case, Debbie wasn’t really seeking advice, just “sounding off” to vent her frustration. I didn’t know what to suggest, and just ended up making what I hoped were appropriately sympathetic noises.

Afterwards, probably out of desperation, Debbie tried a tougher approach with Paul – started laying down the law, and issuing warnings. There were a few heated exchanges, and before too long he’d put in his resignation and left the company.

At his leaving drinks, I got chatting to Paul, and I plucked up the courage to ask him why he’d decided to go. He said he didn’t really want to, but had no choice. The way he told it, he’d gone through a difficult patch in his personal life, which had affected his performance at work. He was through it now, but felt resentful that his manager had tried to push him harder at a time when he simply wasn’t able to cope. He was aware that his reputation had suffered within the business, and felt he had no choice but to start again somewhere else with a clean slate.

I asked him why he hadn’t let his manager know about the challenges in his personal life. He told me that she hadn’t asked him, and he didn’t feel it would have been appropriate to bring it up.

I told him I thought Debbie would have understood, and it might well have helped to avoid the current situation, which I for one felt bad about.

He said he wasn’t so sure – he had nothing against Debbie personally, but she didn’t seem too interested in what he had to say.

I knew nothing could have been further from the truth. Treading carefully, so as not to break a confidence, I said as much.

What he said next surprised me.

“In all the conversations that we ever had, in all those meetings, I don’t think she ever once asked me what would help.”

I was left dumbfounded by the exchange, wondering how all Debbie’s good intentions, all the efforts she made could have resulted in such an outcome.

Some years later, a friend told me about a company he’d just started doing some work with. The company was a training provider that used actors to support staff development. In effect, helping people to communicate more honestly, more clearly and more effectively. I asked for an introduction.

In all the time since, I’ve learned a great deal more about business and management than I knew then.  I’ve also developed a solid track record across a wide range of industries using Drama-based learning to support the development of leadership and communication skills – and I’ve seen how this can help avoid the kinds of stress and frustration felt by Debbie – and by Paul – instead building better teams, making for more successful businesses overall.

Most rewardingly, I’ve seen increased levels of wellbeing and general happiness in both managers and staff through their improved ability to inspire others, motivate their teams, build rapport, change behaviours – and most importantly of all – to stay curious and to keep listening.