Developing Proficiency in HR: Role Play

By Debra Cohen, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP December 27, 2016

The following is excerpted from Chapter 4 of Developing Proficiency in HR: 7 Self-Directed Learning Activities for HR Professionals (SHRM, 2016), written by Debra Cohen, Ph.D., former senior vice president for SHRM.

In developing an effective role-play, you should spend some time thinking of a recurring issue that is related to the competency you've selected. Find data to support the concern, such as feedback from a supervisor, coaching from a colleague, or misunderstandings in e-mails. More importantly, think of situations in which you've been uncomfortable and with which you think you can benefit from focused development. Think of upcoming opportunities in which you will want to showcase your behavior so that you are seen in a more effective light or in a way that you've not behaved previously. For example, if there is an upcoming budget meeting and you believe there will be tension around HR expenses, such as recruitment and staffing, you may want to build a role-play scenario that can help you prepare. Reviewing the budget and building a list of your arguments are good ways to be prepared, but actually engaging in a discussion with someone else playing the role of the naysayer (for example) will make the situation real and give you practice that could be invaluable in making your point and displaying effective behaviors.

Structure the role-play so that you can practice several times. You will want to and have time to reflect about how what you learned, to receive feedback, and to incorporate what you have learned into the follow-up. You will not need to practice the same scenario each time you have an important budget meeting, for example, because the role-play will help you become more comfortable demonstrating different behaviors, and by demonstrating new behaviors you will be engaging with others in your organization on a level at which they have not experienced you previously.

Role-play can be a powerful tool to help develop effective behavior in the line of action. You can hone your demeanor to be both more comfortable and more effective. Yet role-play need not be a burden to use or develop. In addition to the suggestions above, role-play can be employed almost daily as a tool to

practice and build skills. For example, if your drive to work takes 20 minutes, and you expect an interaction that day that is either new to you or that you anticipate will be difficult, practice in the car. Voice the questions or arguments you expect someone to say to you individually or in a meeting. Then respond as you think you should; say what you really want to say—even if you think you might be too cautious in the moment to say it. Practice with different wording and with different inflection in your voice. In 20 minutes you can stage a roleplay with yourself. Don't just do this in your head—practice out loud—your fellow commuters will think you're singing along to a song or talking hands-free in your car!

Remember to conduct a debriefing following the role-play and to ask your role-play partner to take notes on things that you did that were effective and things that were not effective. Instruct your partner to be honest in his or her feedback and to not hold back for fear of hurting your feelings; your goal is to learn from the experience. You should also conduct a debriefing with yourself—even if your role-play is during your drive to work. Afterward, think about how comfortable the exchange was for you and whether you think that you will realistically say or do the same thing "in the moment" and what the reaction will be if you do as you've practiced.

Role-play is easy to do by yourself, with one other person, or with multiple people. There are myriad opportunities—both viable and effective—for using and applying role-play to your development in a natural way. Consider the following possibilities:

• An upcoming interview for a promotion.

• An upcoming meeting that gives you pause or concern.

• An impending employee relations discussion with an employee or a people manager.

• A discussion with a prospective vendor.

• A strategy discussion with peers.

• An imminent discussion with an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspector.

• A pending discussion with an attorney over an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint.

• A discussion about telecommuting one day a week.

You may be hesitant about the above scenarios, or you may be familiar with them or confident about handling them. Regardless, how the scenario will play out is really unknown. Each of these scenarios can range from the simple to the complex depending on the factors associated with each. Reflect on your day-to-day activities, and identify some potential role-play scenarios that you can practice either by yourself or with the assistance of others. Write these down, and identify the priority for them in terms of timing and magnitude or importance.  Think about the allies you might engage to assist with these role-play activities.  Then think about how formal or informal you want the role-play to be. Role plays can last five minutes or even several hours. You decide what you need and the best approach for you and your situation.  You can identify a list of role-play concepts and complete the details at a later time. The point is to tailor the role-play to your needs and to your current work or developmental aspirations.

One additional way to approach role-play as a self-directed learning activity is to form an alliance with a colleague or friend. Offer to help the person with role-play scenarios in exchange for his or her help. Be sure to evaluate how this alliance plays out. You need your role-play partner to be open and honest, to have the ability to play "devil's advocate," and to be tough on you when necessary.  And you need to be open to learning and developing from the scenarios that your partner creates. In thinking about potential partners for either a one-time or an ongoing alliance, consider those who are both in and outside HR. Partners from other business disciplines can potentially offer some interesting insights.

Debra Cohen, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is consultant/president with Deb Cohen, LLC and former senior vice president for knowledge development at SHRM.

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