Role playing is a useful method to train people, especially adults who are being trained to enhance their skills. Traditionally it has been used to train customer service agents and salespeople; however, role playing can also be used to train managers and supervisors to be better leaders.
One good way to conduct a role playing exercise is to break up the class into groups of three participants, each of which is assigned a different role to play: leader/supervisor, subordinate/employee, and observer/coach. The coach provides pre-planned scenario sheets to both the leader and subordinate role players. After giving them a chance to review the specific instructions, then they conduct the role play exercise while the observer/coach takes notes for later discussion.
As an example, the training might be about effective feedback and coaching techniques. A role play scenario might be prepared for conducting an annual performance review. The leader and the subordinate are each provided a role play sheet that describes the situation in several short paragraphs. The first paragraph outlines the general situation as an annual performance review meeting where the employee had five major annual objectives to be reviewed by the supervisor/leader. The subordinate completed each of them with the following ratings: one above expectations, three at expectations, and one below expectations. The task of the supervisor is to conduct the review and provide feedback to the employee.
The supervisor’s sheet might contain a specific paragraph which describes in detail why the ratings were assigned to each task. Their job is to conduct the review, provide the ratings to the employee with an explanation, and to offer some advice on how the employee can improve their performance in the future.
The employee’s role play sheet might provide specific instructions on how they should react in the role play. For example, they might be instructed to disagree with the rating of below expectations and resist the feedback or argue with the supervisor. The supervisor will need to deal with the situation by using their skills to defuse the argument and focus on how to improve for the future. If the supervisor does it correctly, then the employee’s sheet might advise him to accept the feedback and allow the review to be completed; however, it might also instruct the employee that if the supervisor doesn’t handle the situation as trained then they should continue to argue. Of course, the person playing the role of observer/coach should have access to both sheets and understand the instructions for both the supervisor and the employee. If the supervisor doesn’t exercise the proper techniques as trained, then a some point the coach might want to call a time-out and conduct a debrief of what just happened.
At the conclusion of the role play, the observer should moderate a debriefing session. The best way to do this is to ask the person practicing the skills, in the example above – the supervisor, to make their comments on how they thought it went. They should describe what went well, what didn’t go well, and how they could improve. Next, the person who was playing the role of the employee would make their comments in a similar sequence. Only after both role players have made their comments would the observer/coach make their comments by referring to their notes on what they observed. As they discuss the event, the observer/coach should also review the specific skill that was practiced and how it would best be performed. After the discussion, then the participants should exchange roles and run another practice session, perhaps with a different scenario. This way each participant will be able to practice the skill and also be able to observe how others did it too.
Role playing can be an effective technique to practice and reinforce skills. It allows participants to actually practice the skills that they have discussed in the classroom before they need to use them in the real world. It is the practice and reflection that makes role playing an effective technique for mastering a new skill. Participants can’t just hide in class. They are forced to “learn by doing.” This may make some participants a little uncomfortable, but moving people out of their comfort zones is when learning and understanding take place. Next time you want to train people to be better leaders, take the time to think through several scenarios where they can practice a specific leadership skill. Although it takes time for the instructors to prepare for the role playing exercises, if done correctly it can be a powerful training technique.