The Art of Role Playing in Developing Management Proficiency

By Deb Cohen February 11, 2020
The Art of Role Playing in Developing Management Proficiency

The following is an excerpt from Developing Management Proficiency: A Self-directed Learning Approach by Deb Cohen. 


The purpose of role playing is to allow a person to practice a skill or ability they wish to develop.  Applying what you learn in a simulated situation allows you to be more effective and comfortable in a real situation.  With role play, a learner can practice several things simultaneously, can get real time feedback, and can adjust their behavior almost immediately.  A key feature of role play is that the learner places themselves in the shoes they wish to fill or in another person's shoes altogether.  In other words, they are "acting" as they wish to behave.  Role play builds on a person's knowledge and experience by compelling them to think through how they will behave in a given situation.  It enables the learner to experience the situation, or create a situation, to prepare for a future interaction.  Role play is valuable because it allows for practice in a safe and nonthreatening way.  Role play is a very flexible learning tool.  It can take several forms, can be done in a very planned way, or can be a spur of the moment activity.  Role play can help managers on a day-to-day basis and can also be helpful in developing management proficiency in most, if not all of the skills managers need today.

Role-play has been an accepted learning tool for a long time.  It is often used in school settings and in training programs.  A key reason is that role play facilitates retention of learning.  One of the strengths of role-play is that it allows the learner to make abstract problems or interactions into more concrete scenarios.  Another strength is that it can provide immediate feedback.  If a learner is role-playing with another person, not as a solo actor, they can experience a genuine reaction to something they say or do.  This allows for the opportunity to speculate on attitudes, feelings, and uncertainties that may be present in the future situation.  Replicating a role play may also allow for comparisons of approaches and responses.  Role-play involves applying knowledge, skills, and abilities to a situational problem.  The learner needs to be integrative in applying what they know, what they've experienced, and how they respond in real time.  Role-playing decreases the gap between thinking and doing.  For example, the sales associate who is taught about customer service goes through a lot of training for greeting and responding to customers in a variety of scenarios.  Over time, the responses become more routine for the different customer interactions they face.

Managers often think of role-play as something that must be done with at least one partner.  However, this is not at all the case.  A modified role-play can easily be done by yourself and can be effective in practicing behaviors and discussions about behavior.  In your head, have you ever practiced what you will say to someone?  Chances are, you've done this many times in the past.  Greeting someone important, giving a speech, reacting to something you expect someone to say and so forth are examples of things we all want to get right and be effective at so we likely try to practice what we will say.  While you might do this in your head, you've probably also done this out loud in the privacy of your car, shower, kitchen or office.  Doing this type of exercise can be helpful in not only practicing but also in building confidence.  When trying to develop behaviors like leadership, integrity, influencing others, coaching, empowering others, and so many more, rehearsing what you want to say so that you say it affectively is very important. 

Improving Role Play Effectiveness: 10 Tips for Success

A role play can be impromptu, quick and easy.  Getting into the habit of playing scenes in your head or briefly with a partner can be quite helpful.  Self-directed learning allows for a person to create meaningful role plays outside of formal training and education programs.  Planning out your role plays will be more effective if you consider some of the following factors.

  • Do advance planning:  Write out the roles and think about all the potential bumps that can occur. 
  • Imitate actual scenarios:  Write a good plot. 
  • Engage willing participants:  Think about the fit the potential partner brings to the exercise and whether or not they will be engaged in your learning journey. 
  • Define what effective behavior looks like:  What behaviors are you looking to display?  How do you want to behave differently or who might you wish to emulate? 
  • Consider using an observer:  In addition to a partner who may play a role in your role play, think about including an observer whose role is to watch what you do as well as how the partner reacts to you. 
  • Pause and rewind:  If the role play is awkward or does not seem to be working it's perfectly acceptable to take a break or interrupt the scene. 
  • Location:  Whenever possible, use the actual location or environment in which the situation will take place. 
  • Video tape or audio tape:  This will be especially helpful if you are role playing on your own as it will provide you with a tangible source of feedback. 
  • Always conduct a debrief:  After a role play or set of role plays sit back and review what happened.  Examine what went well and what did not. 
  • Repeat:  If time permits and partners are willing consider repeating the scene. 

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