Business leaders could learn a lot about change management from Tango Dancers, according to Ralf Wetzel, top management professor at Vlerick Business School. , Brussels.
Wetzel, working with psychologist and dancer Frauke Nees, says there are three things that characterize the Argentine tango, which leaders would do well to study before embarking upon a change management project:
Tango is based on improvised movement. Dancers acquire technique and knowledge that are applied in the dance, but there are no standardised procedures. The leader must be continually aware of their partner, and be able to instantly and confidently respond to multiple inputs, from their dance partner, other couples in the vicinity, and the complex, ever changing music. Equally, the partner must be able to listen intently, execute, and add to an unspoken direction, confidently and independently
Classic change management concepts rely on formalized and linear step-models far away from the flux nature of societal dynamics, restricting leaders in their ability to adapt to
Leaders in today's fast moving business environment must be able to apply their knowledge and experience to harness the power of improvisation and instant adaptation to new situations. Change leadership becomes much more effective when leaders use their skill and knowledge to improvise and respond to changing environments.
2. Profit from asymmetry In Tango there is a clear role distinction between dance partners. It is clear who is giving direction (or making a suggestion) and who is responding. However, once a direction (or invitation to act) is made, the leader must allow the other to respond, whilst carefully monitoring and following, until the next direction, that may be just seconds away, when the roles reverse again.
Once a direction is made, the receiving partner must listen, interpret the direction and execute confidently and independently, adding their own innovation, until the end of the 'task" where they wait for the next "invitation" when the roles reverse again.
Contrary to very recent and modern concepts of collective or `Vagabond’ leadership, which praise the absence of hierarchy between leaders and followers, this asymmetry is highly effective in providing clarity, a visible sense of direction, and quick decision-making; allowing a team to act with positive initiative. However, this asymmetry must not to be mistaken with dictatorial leadership or powerless submission of the follower, it must be based on a mutually respectful relationship.
3. Embrace emotion, protect pride
Tango is a performance of desire, passion, seduction, despair and the struggle for recognition, through silent communication and collaboration. It therefore plays out a vocabulary of emotions, which are commonly unacknowledged in modern change management concepts.
Change management projects are emotionally charged – employees are proud of their work and this can be damaged in the process of altering the way things are done. Tango dancers protect each other’s pride during a dance by turning mistakes into deliberate transitions. Good leaders should similarly seek to ensure their employees take pride in what they do and that their pride is not hurt in any upheaval.
Tango dance workshops, as part of leadership training, can be an enjoyable break from the "talking head" and business focussed sessions, providing a "mind and body" insight into the dynamics of quality performance in teams and team leaders, whilst encouraging innovation and collaboration.