team bonding role play team building activity

Roleplay and Real World

Published on Aug 10, 2006

According to Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Yet the ‘staged’ aspect of roleplay sessions is often what alienates participants in learning, development and team-building programmes. When learners receive post-roleplay feedback, their facilitators often hear a “Yes, but in real life I wouldn’t do it that way…” rebuttal.

Using scenarios to put learning models into practice is widely accepted in HR development and assessment. But is it possible for scenario-based learning to land in a way that participants feel is more ‘real’?

In fact, companies taking the initiative in employee learning and development have moved away from roleplay and embraced the concept of ‘realplay’. The difference is subtle, but distinct.

Generally, in a roleplay, colleagues or facilitators take on a role and act out an invented scenario in which the delegate plays the other party. The whole situation is based on the fairly explicit understanding that “we’re all pretending”: it’s the sitcom of the training world.

Extending that analogy, Realplay would be reality TV! Realplay usually involves some combination of:

  1. live issues – the delegate is asked to bring in a genuine and current challenge from their job, and the realplay is used to help them examine that challenge and (often with coaching) try out various ways to deal with it; and/or
  2. actors in character.

Both of these elements can make the work more confronting for participants, but the learning is infinitely more powerful if the process is skillfully managed.

But if we’re trying to get away from the ‘pretend’ element of scenario work, why use actors? Simply put, actors pretend professionally. Their training ensures the character they play responds in a genuine way. At the same time, they don’t get ‘lost’ in the role or lose sight of the goal of the process. Actors are uniquely equipped to be one person on the outside (and to commit completely to that character) and yet to maintain a continuous professional awareness of how and why the character is responding as he or she is, and what they need to do to control the momentum of the situation. This ability consciously to log emotional and physical responses is invaluable when giving accurate and specific feedback to participants. In my experience, feedback from these ‘characters’ is generally perceived by participants as useful, unbiased and “real”.

Neil Cowieson, a chartered industrial and organisational psychologist, and director of HumanScope, specializes in designing and running assessment and development centres for senior management across a range of major corporate clients. He works frequently with actors and sums up the advantages as: “Realism, credibility and focus. The character is someone the participant hasn’t met before and the actor’s sole focus is to roleplay effectively. This leaves facilitators like me completely free to assess with great clarity and accuracy”.

It is important to emphasise that the use of actors is not intended to ‘trick’ delegates. Facilitators can choose to explain to delegates in advance that they will be working with professional actors. And, despite initial scepticism from many participants, the power of the process and the end results tend to overcome all initial reservations.

Actors’ core skills of clarity of communication, improvisation, mental/emotional/physical self-awareness, creative thinking, and trust-building can offer productive (and highly enjoyable) elements in learning, development and team-building programmes. So next time you’re tempted to roll out yet another tired roleplay, why not ‘get real’ and speak to the professional pretenders.

Sally Dellow is a director of Dramatic Difference, a Hong Kong-based company that works with clients Asia-wide to devise (and provide actors for) learning, development, assessment, team-building and coaching programmes.

Interested finding out more about Team Building Asia programs?

Get in Touch

All Articles

Recommended Reading