Talent Development 5 Role Play

July 28, 2020

One of the capability areas in the ATD CPTD certification model is “Instructional Design.” I get a lot of mileage out of doing role plays with groups, whether the training is in person or virtual.

I find that the ability to work on a problem situation with another person in an unscripted format is a great mental break, so I insert several of these into my courses. People really love them and have a great time doing the role plays.

Here is an example of a brief video I shot in Jamaica when I was doing some leadership training for a group of talent development professionals a few years ago. Notice how the participants are having a rollicking good time while learning a significant point about trust.

The trick in designing role plays is to have a twist in the scene that is known by only one of the people involved and that the person is sworn to not divulge. The other person knows there is an elephant in the room, but that is not being shared for some unknown reason.

In this particular role play I pair up someone playing a middle manager with a quality group leader reporting to that manager. Each person gets a write up of roughly 200 words that explains the situation.

In this case, the manager has just promoted a different group leader to the manager level. The person promoted is inferior to the group leader who was passed over, but she is very attractive. The passed-over group leader is furious and wants to pin down the manager for playing favorites.

What she does not know is that the manager was instructed to promote the other person by the CEO and instructed to not divulge this to the disgruntled group leader who was passed over.

What follows is an exercise in what to say when your actions made no sense, but you must defend it on instructions from your boss. Of course, the debrief reveals that the real problem is that the CEO is the one who is playing favorites but he wants his role in the selection to remain hidden. That underscores a problem of integrity and accountability, which destroys trust.

Role plays seem to work to break up the instructional pattern, so people remain fresh for the major part of the content. I also use body sculptures, stories, magic illusions, physical demonstrations, and visual aids to add more spice.

Another technique is to post a photograph or cartoon and ask each individual to write a funny caption. Then they can read their captions to each other.

My rule of thumb, whether in person or virtual, is to not have more than about 15 minutes of content without giving the group a mental break of some kind. This makes the time fly by and keeps the group fresh, because they never know what is coming up next.

One precaution is that there needs to be a significant learning or point in each activity. The activity matters to the entire learning experience. Even though it is fun, it is not just for fun. During the debrief, you point out the main lesson and discuss the significance. For the participants, this allows experiential learning to occur in an atmosphere that is fun and lively.


The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Front Line Leaders in a Merger

January 22, 2011

I have been studying the impact of mergers or acquisitions on various stakeholders within organizations. It is impossible to state the impact on everyone in a particular organizational level because of situational and personal differences. It is, however, helpful to think through what a typical person in one level is dealing with even though the exact forces will be somewhat different in each case and perhaps vastly different in outlier circumstances. This article focuses on issues for the first level of supervision in an organization during a merger or acquisition.

In some cases, these leaders are called “group leaders” or “squad leaders;” in others, they are referred to as “supervisors.” There are probably many other names, but for the remainder of this article I will use the word “supervisor.” The common thread is that these people operate at the critical and delicate junction between management layers and workers on the shop floor.

Depending on the type of work being done, these individuals come from a variety of backgrounds. The most typical history is that the supervisor was once a shop floor person who did very well on the job over a long period of time. Eventually this individual was tapped to do the work of supervisor when an opportunity arose.

Another common trait of supervisors is that they are often put in the job with little training. Reason: They already have deep process knowledge and have shown a natural tendency toward informal leadership, so they are given the responsibility with little or no formal leadership training. In most cases it is their excellence at doing the lower level jobs and their process knowledge that enabled their promotion to supervision in the first place.

The attitudes of supervisors during a merger or acquisition are critical to how the shop floor people will react to the change. If supervisors model a cooperative and adventurous spirit and keep looking for the good, it can really help people see that positive outcomes are possible. If the supervisors are rolling their eyes and visibly displaying their own fears, then it is going to be picked up and amplified by people on the shop floor.

In a merger or acquisition situation, the shop floor processes are subject to combinations or modifications in order to accommodate the changing nature of the business. This could be threatening to supervisors, since their license to lead is their familiarity with the work rather than their deep leadership skills. Changing work means their platform to lead has been upset with little warning. Couple that with the inevitable push to reduce supervisory (and all non-direct) headcount, and you have an opportunity for some terrified people in these roles.

I believe the best approach for helping supervisors adapt to the new operating procedures is to have them work intensely with the shop floor people to invent the new combined processes. The involvement will put them in a natural leadership role during a time of significant chaos, which is precisely when a leader’s skill and talent are best developed and tested.

Another way to help these people with the transition is to conduct information sessions with top management just for the supervisors. Of course, they will be part of the general data dissemination program, but their issues and concerns will have a different flavor than other levels, so it is wise to let them vent in a safe environment that is geared for supervisors. You might even want to encourage a kind of support group, because the ability to share experiences during the transition will help ease tensions.

Lastly, if there is time and money available, the transition period is a great time to do some serious leadership training for all levels. This includes the supervisors who may not have received training at the time they were elevated to their job.

A merger or acquisition is a nervous time for everyone in both organizations. Due to the unique nature of their position in the organization, first line supervisors need some special attention in order to help them and the direct workforce cope with the uncertainty and need for change.