Role-playing is an effective and valuable vocational tool…when properly administered.
It offers a low-risk opportunity to practice a new theory or technique before one takes an idea out for a real world spin. When done wrong, role-playing is a colossal and damaging waste of time.
Picture this scene: A role-playing instructor presents this scenario to a class: “Suppose a customer comes to you with this statement: ‘We are considering terminating our contract with you because our swami has told us that the aura surrounding our relationship with your company is causing bad vibes, especially since Jupiter is in Virgo’.”
The instructor than looks directly at a young lady in the class and says, “Mary, please role-play your response to this statement.” Poor Mary turns eighteen shades of red and wishes with all she has for her own immediate demise.
The worst part of situations like this is that someone has the nerve to call this role-playing. They’re not. What Mary was asked to do is improvisation; that’s a far cry from role-playing. Mary didn’t sign up for a Night at the Improv, she merely went to work. Role-playing could genuinely help Mary improve at her job but she will never put herself in a position to do it again because of this experience.
The worst result of asking someone to improvise vs. practice their skills (role-play) is that it burns into
a person’s mind that practice equals pain.
There are (at least) five myths that create a negative environment around role-playing.
Myth #1: Role-playing is about acting.
Not so. And when it is framed that way, it causes instant anxiety.
• Role-playing is about practicing very specific behaviors in small increments.
• Leaders would be wise to lower their expectations of performance and focus
Myth #2: Role-playing is about perfecting a skill.
Role-playing is more effective when it focuses on failing successfully.
• Trying something once and then proclaiming success is not “improvement.”
• Skills are developed through practice and time.
• Focus on progress, not perfection.
Myth #3: Everyone should role-play at least once.
Huge mistake. The worst thing a student can do is to try something only one time.
• Failure registers in our brains as a threat. The brain will send a message saying, “Hey, that hurt…don’t do that again.” And that’s that.
• We learn skills (we train our brains) through repetition, not one-offs.
Myth #4: Role-playing is always a group activity.
Role-playing is far more effective in very small groups, or even alone, where a person can focus on the content and not worry about the setting.
• Let people get comfortable role-playing on their own.
• After going solo, have people role-play with one other person.
• After one-on-one sessions, advance to a small group, etc.
Myth #5: Role-playing is a drag.
It doesn’t have to be. With the right circumstances, it can be enjoyable!
• Communicate low expectations to begin with.
• Reward progress—even small amounts of progress.
• Praise, praise, praise! Adults aren’t so evolved…praise works with pets, children, and professional adults as well.
It is true that role-playing is uncomfortable for just about everyone. But that very discomfort indicates a growth opportunity. Build a role-playing habit in your organization, and watch your people blossom.
For more business insights and strategies, sign up for our free management newsletter, Moving Ahead.
Develop your management skills with AMA seminars and training resources.