Circus Acts

Are you walking a tightrope at the office? Professor Ella Bell looks to the big top to help executives unearth new insights about work and life.


“Face it,” declares Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell, as MBA heads nod vigorously. “Life is a circus.” You’re thinking, Man, that’s a lame metaphor. Lions? Tigers? Bears? Oh my. But in her classes — and with clients like Salomon Smith Barney and PepsiCo — Bell trades on the cliché to make a point: We don’t bring enough of ourselves to the workplace, which is why work doesn’t feel like the greatest show on Earth. But we can do something about it.


Bell, 52, is an associate professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and one of the first two black women on the faculty. She’s a popular instructor — an intellectual, a shrink, and a comedienne all in one. ”Circus Acts” — a group exercise borrowed from her mentor, Donald Wolfe, and other colleagues at Case Western Reserve University, where she got her PhD — provokes professionals to think about their work, their lives, and the nature of the workplace itself. Here, with Bell’s commentary, is how it works.

1. Draw three rings — one each for your work, your personal life, and your community involvement. The rings can vary in size and can either interconnect or not.

We often don’t talk about our personal lives at work, because we’re told that we come to work to do work. But people are more effective when they feel a sense of completeness. People have to know that they can integrate other aspects of their lives into their jobs.

Why? Because it makes companies more effective. I’m working at PepsiCo with minority managers. The question I ask there is, “How do you get all of yourself through the front door?” When these guys drive to work, they’ve got their music going — but as soon as they pull into the parking lot, they shut the music down. The suit goes on. Their body language changes. If I’m allowed to bring in everything I am, all my off-the-wall ideas, then my employer builds a stronger house.

2. In each ring, draw the performer you think represents your role in that sphere.

The symbolism is important here. How do you think of yourself? People in corporations do this and say, I’m overstressed and overworked. There’s no downtime. I’m on the tightrope. I’m fighting off lions. Or I’m the ringmaster, trying to keep everything together.


What worries me is when I see someone with their circles, and they’re a tightrope walker, a trapeze artist, and a stilt walker. I’m like, Wouldn’t you want to be a clown? Or if the rings are all clowns, I ask, Where are you taken seriously? When can you take off the mask?

Any role on its own might be healthy for you. Sometimes roles reflect degrees of control. But whatever the reason, you’ve taken this role on — so what have you gained from it? Do you take on this role, or has it been pushed on you?

3. Below each performer, list your biggest stresses and your primary coping mechanisms for each role.

How do people cope? Perhaps they eat more. Or they withdraw. Or they shop. How effective are these mechanisms?

In this exercise, people figure out that the most effective coping mechanism is often staring them in the face: They find out they’re not alone. I hear them say, “I didn’t know you were struggling with this. I thought I was the only one.”

Blacks typically aren’t surprised by the commonalities with black colleagues; they’ve seen them all along. But the whites I’ve worked with, they’re living with “me, myself, and I.” For them, identity more often is tied to individual talents and contributions. They look around in this exercise and say, “Wait a minute, there’s something in common?” That discovery can galvanize a team, because it builds trust and dialogue.


4. Imagine what you’d want your three rings to look like. Then build an action plan to make it happen.

Part of moving on means letting go of your old role. Once you take them on, roles are hard to step out of. Others expect that you’re going to keep performing those circus acts. Sometimes you feel trapped. So how do you let go? What behaviors do you have to change?

I tell people, Start small. Pick one thing you want to tackle. Make it something that’s doable. Look for support, from your work group or family, so that you’re not tackling this all alone on the tightrope. Think about how you’re going to use the group to help you. Six months from now, go through the process again.

And for companies, the message is just as powerful: Look at all these circus acts. What do you see? You have a lot of people walking around in costume. Maybe it’s 2,000 clowns in a Volkswagen — and not a ringmaster in sight, no one who feels they have authority. Think about how people feel when they’re heard, when they can share their ideas freely. Think what you might be doing to keep people from bringing all of themselves to work.

Contact Ella Bell by email ( .

Sidebar: She’s a Ringleader

What is Ella Bell’s own circus act? These days, she says, she’s “high up on a trapeze, but it’s a nice trapeze. There’s no net, but there are all sorts of people and resources there to break my fall.”


Bell feels visible and vulnerable because of the publication this year of Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity (Harvard Business School Press), the product of 10 years of research with Stella M. Nkomo, a professor at South Africa’s Unisa Graduate School of Business Leadership.

Our Separate Ways explores the differences between white and black women executives. “White women,” Bell says, “get co-opted by power.” They believe they will eventually fit into the organizations built and led largely by white men. “And everything is individualistic for them: Success is about what I do, how credible I am. “Black women, by contrast, can’t hope to fit in so easily. “For black women, success is based on having a lot of people around who support and guide them,” says Bell.

Put these women in a Circus Acts exercise, and some interesting things happen. White women, Bell says, often are surprised to find that their female colleagues are facing similar problems. “They say, ‘Wait a minute — you’re going through that too?’ “

Black women come to understand just how much energy they are dedicating to forging a community. “Their antennae are always up,” Bell says. “They’re always wondering, Who can I trust? Who can I talk to? And if they’re doing all that monitoring, how much energy does that take?”