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The Value of High-Quality Role Play in Organizational Learning

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Role plays are a staple of training programs everywhere, but what makes them so impactful? We've got the answers.

You sign up for training at work, excited to learn new communication strategies. You’re told the training program will feature extensive practical application of the skill – what do you think that involves?

If you guessed role plays, odds are you’re right. Role plays are a quintessential part of organizational learning: whether you’re learning a new process, testing your technical knowledge, or developing crucial interpersonal skills, role plays are the go-to steppingstone between training and real-world application.

However, role plays come in many different forms, and they’re so prevalent that we sometimes take them for granted. What is it about role plays that makes them so valuable, and what’s the key to designing them well? We want to share three reasons why high-quality role plays strengthen any training program.

Contextually familiar situations better prepare learners

When people are learning a new skill or behavior, they want to practice in a situation they’ll find themselves in. If you’re training a pharmaceutical sales representative, an abstract role play where they “sell” their pen to someone isn’t going to cut it, but having them practice selling a fictitious drug to someone playing a doctor better simulates their real world.

Some trainers’ instincts are to create hyper-realistic role plays that take hours or even days to complete, but those carry the risk of distracting learners by bogging them down in the details. Even worse, they can discourage behavior change: if a learner receives detailed training in one specific situation, they may not develop the flexibility to adapt their skills to other situations.

As some training experts argue, the key is to design pseudo-relevant situations. High-quality role plays should be realistic enough that they feel familiar to learners, but not so realistic that they can’t generalize their experiences.

Emotionally authentic situations are more memorable

A good role play should have emotional stakes built in. It’s not enough for learners to simply go through the motions of a fake sales pitch or a coaching conversation – they should feel something. In real life, emotions influence many if not most of our decisions, so role play scenarios should aim to approximate an authentic emotional experience.

This is where the role-playing instructions are key. The case background and character descriptions should encourage participants toward specific attitudes, but they shouldn’t spoon feed them dialogue and behavior choices. Allowing some improvisation is crucial to creating authentic moments in a role play; otherwise, the participants might feel like they’re just reading from a script.

What trainers shouldn’t do to create emotional authenticity is “grade” participants on their performance. Some trainers use external stakes like rankings or performance scores to motivate learners to role play well, but if you were told you’d receive a grade during a role play, you’d spend more time worrying about getting a good grade than internalizing the lesson, wouldn’t you?

It’s not enough for learners to simply go through the motions of a fake sales pitch or a coaching conversation – they should feel something.

Internally consistent role plays lead to more empathy

One of the biggest benefits of role play is that it promotes understanding of other perspectives, so a well-written role play should make sense from every point of view. That way, once the role play is over, participants can come away with an “aha” moment.

Again, role-playing instructions are crucial here: participants should be given plausible character backgrounds and motivations that drive their behavior in the role play. Once the characters’ perspectives clash, the participants can use the skills they’ve learned to come together to solve the problem. After the role play, the facilitator can encourage further reflection on the participants’ perspectives through a group debrief.

Trainers can encourage participants to switch roles so they literally embody the other perspective. For example, in the first round of a sales training role play, a participant may play the role of the customer and gain insight into customer objections that they never considered before. In the second round, the participant can switch to the role of the salesperson and apply the lessons they just learned to better handle customer objections.

In our role plays, we often make use of a triad format. We divide learners into groups of three and assign them three roles: protagonist, antagonist, and observer. The first two roles are usually the manager and employee, sales rep and customer, or even two team members in a conflict situation, and the observer acts as an objective third party. We include three separate scenarios so that everyone has a chance to practice each role. We make sure every character’s actions seem justifiable from their perspective, and during the debrief many of the learners tell us they feel like they understand the other side better than before.

Great role plays leave an impact

The best role plays prepare learners for real-life situations by immersing them in realistic, interactive scenarios that encourage communication. Interpersonal communication is complicated and full of nuance, which is why interpersonal skills can be a challenge for learners. Role play scenarios that incorporate those nuances stick with them well after the training is over.

Familiar contexts, emotional authenticity, and internal consistency go a long way in making role plays more than just acting out case studies, and trainers who utilize them will see remarkable success with their learners. We use these strategies in our own role plays, and if you want to incorporate them into your company’s training program, contact us here.

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