Roleplaying as a Training Tool

“What’s my motivation?” Tom asked. 

“Huh?” stumbled out of my mouth, “Your motivation?” 

“Yes. What is compelling me to this action?” 

Eight years teaching leadership classes and I never had this question. I gave it a moment’s thought and replied, “You’re his manager. This worker has not been meeting expectations. You are to counsel him. Your motivation is to help your employee and create a high functioning team.” 

The guy playing the worker sat across the table leafing through his handout, waiting for the roleplay to begin. 

“I need more,” Tom, the pretend manager informs me, “That’s not enough to find my center. Perhaps a back story would help. Let’s see…I was born to a poor rural family, the third youngest of 6 siblings. I was a late bloomer, not speaking until I was 25 months. But when I did…” 

My eyes rolled a bit, followed by my head shaking. “Okay, you work on your back story and you can go later.” I look around the room, “Dick, are you ready to be the manager.” 

“You betcha!” Dick gleeful exclaims as he bounds to the table. Taking a seat across from the ‘worker.’ 

“Okay,” I begin to explain, again, the situation. “Dick, you are Bob’s manager. He’s not been meeting his production quotas, so you’ve called him into your office.” I look, they both nod and understand. 

“Alright then, take it away…” I tell them. 

“Hey Bob, thanks for coming it. How are things?” Dick starts with a good calm opening. 

Bob is playing his part beautifully. Looking down, avoiding eye contact as if he knows he’s not doing well, “Well, Dick, I…ummm…well, there’s been some things happening at home…and…I…umm…” 

“What things?” Dick barks. “What f’ing things are going on at home that are so bad that you can’t tighten a simple bolt?” 

Bob is stunned. The whole class is stunned. 

“That’s all your job is…right?” Dick continued, “Taking a 7 cent bolt, threading it into a hole, and tightening it with a wrench. How f’ing hard is that? My 90 year old grandmother could do it…’ 

“Dick,” I try to interrupt, “That may not be the best approach…” 

But he doesn’t stop. He’s on a roll. 

“And look at all she’s got going on at her home. Grandpa dead. Three deadbeat children not willing to lift a finger to help. And don’t get me started on any of the other 8 grandkids. I’m the only one supporting her. Half my paycheck going to the Sunny Valley Retirement home.” His voice rises, he gets up out of the chair. 

“Maybe I should just do your job too Bob! I can tighten a bolt, lead this team, and take care of my family. Not that my family takes care of me. My wife’s gone again…don’t know when…” 

Reaching out, I grab Dick by the shoulders and lead him away from the table and to the other room. 

Returning a few minutes later, I tell the class, “Well, Dick’s going take some time to collect himself.” 

“Tom,” I look over and see he’s furiously scribbling in a notebook, “How are you doing on your backstory? You ready to go?” 

“Not quite yet.” Tom replies, “I’m just finishing up grade school. I had the family move across the country to develop a multi-leveled nuance to the character.” 

“Okay, guess we’ll be coming back to Tom.” I look around the room. “Hey Harry. How about you?” 

“Huzzah!” Harry exclaims in and English accent. Causing us to give him a curious look.  

Harry leaps from his chair and continues, “I accept the gauntlet you have cast before me.  I will endeavor to right the egregious wrongs the knave portends upon our company.” 

“Ummm, Harry? What are you doing? I ask. He drops the accent and turns to me. 

“This is roleplay right? My character is a 12th level elf-warrior. It’s perfect for this situation. I can cast a ‘Hard Work’ spell, and if that doesn’t work, I can threaten him with my sword.” 

“Harry, it is not that type of roleplay. Please sit down and lets move on.” I scribble note to myself that in the future I should check for participants who play Dungeons & Dragons. “Ummm…Tom? You ready?” 

“Just a minute,” Tom mumbles, without looking up from his notebook, “I’m in high school and just had my heart broken when Pamela Sue walked out on me at the Prom…” 

I go up to the front of the class, “Okay, that’s it! We’re done with roleplay. Let’s read some case studies…” 

While artistic license was taken in the above, the actions of Tom, Dick, and Harry are all based in actual events observed in role playing exercises… 

Article by: Craig (Doc) Plain – Process Improvement Program Manager/Team Lead/Subject Matter Expert at Koniag Government Services