ADVICE ON PREPARING FOR ROLE PLAY EXERCISES
People who criticize assessment centers will often argue that successful candidates are doing nothing more than "playing a role". They say that a candidate may act one way in the assessment center, but when he or she is on the job, they act a different way. This complaint reflects two misconceptions about the assessment center process.
First, the assessment center is designed to measure whether a candidate knows what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and why to do it. Successful candidates will have demonstrated this. If they do not do it when they are on the job, then someone on the job is not holding them accountable. This situation, if true, is not a problem with the assessment center process but rather, with people in the organization not holding others accountable.
The second misconception is that some candidates think that an organization is promoting them for "who they are". A more accurate way of looking at it is that the organization is hiring people to play a role. Perhaps that role is a first line supervisor. Maybe the role is that of an educator or trainer. Or, perhaps, it is the role of a manager in an organization undergoing dynamic change. Those candidates who can "play" those roles are more likely to succeed in them.
The role play exercise, like no other, allows assessors an opportunity to watch candidates play the role they are seeking. It really doesn't matter who you are in the sense that the organization doesn't really care whether you are a soft hearted person who weeps at sensitive movies, or a rock hard drill sergeant. What does matter, however, is whether you can exhibit sensitivity or toughness in those situations that require it. That's what a role play does. It allows the assessors to see if you can play the role that is necessary to address the situation created for the assessment center.
Now it is true that the role play situation should reflect the needs and concerns of the organization. If the organization needs a change agent, perhaps the exercise would consist of a candidate trying to convince reluctant subordinates to get on board with a new idea. If the organization needs supervisors who can do some healing, then the role play exercise should reflect that situation. This is another example of how the exercises should reflect the needs and concerns of the organization. The organization benefits by promoting people who are knowledgeable about those needs and concerns, and can demonstrate the ability to effectively address them.
Most role play exercises will involve the candidate interacting with another person or group of people to resolve some issue. Conflict resolution, problem solving, and interpersonal skills are at the top of the list of performance dimensions that are usually measured in a role play exercise. Composure, decision making, organizational skills, job knowledge, leadership, sensitivity, and supervisory skills are also frequently assessed in the role play exercise.
There are many ways to succeed at the role play exercise. In other words, just as there are a variety of ways to communicate effectively, there are many interpersonal approaches that can be successful in role play exercises. This is part of the reason that we do not use a simple behavioral checklist for evaluating candidate performance in our assessment centers.
Similarly, we do not suggest a single method that can be applied to all types of role play exercises. Indeed, you have to use a method or approach that you are comfortable with, and that you feel will best accomplish the goals you have in mind for that situation. And keep in mind that the role play situations may call for a wide variety of approaches. The same approach that you might use in dealing one-on-one with a poor performing subordinate may be wholly inappropriate for addressing a large group of upset customers.
Because of the variety of approaches that can be successful in role play exercises, it is impossible to provide candidates with a systematic approach that will fit all circumstances. Nonetheless, in many role play settings, candidates can benefit by considering the following:
For the vast majority of role plays, there is a benefit to starting the meeting in a positive manner. Sometimes that is no more than a friendly welcome or thank you for the opportunity to meet the individuals you are interacting with. At other times, it may involve some friendly, initial talk about non-controversial concerns in order to build rapport. However, since the time for most role play exercises is quite limited it is often not a good idea to spend too much time "chatting" about irrelevant topics. In addition, there may be some role plays where the expectation is that the candidate will come in serious and focused, and not looking to build a friendship. As in any role play exercise, the candidate will have to assess the situation and respond to it as he or she feels would be most effective for that environment.
Remember that the way the candidate opens the meeting will often dictate the tone of the entire meeting. While it is often not good to let the role player dictate the tone of the meeting, a good candidate will attempt to take clues from the role player(s) and respond in such a manner that will bring the tone to that which the candidate can best manage his or her objectives.
While there are exceptions, most meetings (most role play exercises are essentially "meetings") benefit by letting the people in attendance know the purpose of the meeting. Candidates will need to assess that degree to which they will reveal the purpose, and at what time that revelation will occur. If, for example, the purpose of the meeting is to inform a subordinate about some undesirable changes, it can sometimes be beneficial to get into the meeting before revealing the specific purpose. Other meetings will benefit from people understanding the purpose of the meeting and, perhaps, even having an established agenda.
It is also important to keep in mind that the purpose of meetings may evolve or change during the exercise. For example, perhaps the role play exercise consists of meeting with clients that have some complaints about the service they are receiving. In this setting, while the candidates may have one agenda, the clients may have a vastly different one. In this setting, it may be best to allow the role players the opportunity to establish the purpose of the meeting.
As in almost every assessment center exercise, it is important to figure out the source of the problem that needs to be resolved. Very frequently in role play exercises, the true problem is hidden. For example, a well known Fire Chief tells the following story.
He had just been promoted to an organization that had hired him as a fire fighter almost 20 years before. He sat down for his first day as the Chief, and took a moment to congratulate himself on working his way up to lead a 1500 person department.
His self absorption was quickly abandoned when he learned that his first meeting was regarding some disciplinary action on a fire fighter who had refused to mop the station floor. The fire fighter had refused, leading to a supervisor giving the fire fighter a direct order which the fire fighter again refused, leading to multiple layers of supervisors and managers giving orders and making threats. The entire matter landed on the Chief's desk.
If you were thrown into this "role play", how would you have approached the problem? Would you have reviewed the fire fighter's work history? How about the historical problems that the supervisor might have had? Would you meet with just the fire fighter, or would you bring in the supervisor or others? Would you have characterized the problem as one of insubordination, or was something else going on?
Certainly, discovering the cause of the fire fighter's refusal to mop the floor would be essential in resolving this problem. If you characterize the problem as insubordination, then the solutions will be designed to address that problem. If, however, the problem was discovered to be, say, a safety problem, then the solutions might be quite different.
It is, in almost every situation, vitally important that the candidate figures out the problem. We have seen candidates spend the entire role play exercise addressing the symptoms of a problem and never getting to the real source of the problem. That is not to say, however, that dealing with symptoms is necessarily bad.
For example, we have worked with a number of police and fire organizations where the average tenure on the department is less than five years. A Police Sergeant might not have any control over the cause of the problem that has resulted in supervising young and inexperienced officers. Instead, he or she must simply deal with the symptoms of that problem. Nonetheless, it remains very important that the Sergeant be aware of the problem.
One of the more frequent negative outcomes of many role play exercises occurs when the candidate allows the role player to control the meeting. Because this can be so disastrous, many candidates have gone too far the other way. These candidates control the meeting to such a degree that the role player does not get an opportunity to voice concerns and, very often, the candidate fails to either correctly identify the problem or develop a solution that the role player can accept.
Perhaps a better way to frame the issue is that in most role play exercises, you do not want to let the meeting get out of control. This may, at times, require the candidate to maintain strict controls over what is said and done in the meeting, and perhaps even the establishment of various ground rules. Other settings, however, simply require that the candidate guide the meeting, often without the role player even recognizing the degree to which he or she is being guided.
We have found that most candidates benefit from having notes that assist them in working their way through the role play to their objective. However, it is also important to recognize that flexibility may be required for success in this setting. Sometimes, in order to achieve a desired result, the candidate and role player will have to work through a variety of tangential issues before zeroing in on the fundamental problem and its resolution. In this situation, the candidate should be sufficiently flexible to deviate from his or her notes, and yet return to them when it would be most helpful.
We have also seen candidates who seem so focused on their notes that they do not appear to be listening to the role player. These candidates may ask a question that appears on their notes and, instead of making eye contact and listening to the role player's response, they will lower their eyes and read their notes for further guidance.
While role plays will differ, a generally good strategy is to seek a "win-win" solution. Finding such a positive outcome will very often take up the majority of the role play time.
Also keep in mind that some situations simply do not have a solution that will be considered desirable by the role player. Having to demonstrate the ability to be firm but fair may be what is necessary in a role play setting.
Very often, the role play will state that the candidate is "friends with" the role player, or has had a long time relationship with the role player. We do not typically do this in our role plays. Quite frankly, we do not think that most people can really put themselves in that frame of mind. For these exercises, the candidates are typically seeing the role player for the first time in their lives. Asking them to "imagine" that they have been friends with the person for a long time is rather unrealistic, and at the Booth Research Group, we frown on creating unrealistic situations for candidates.
Another aspect that distinguishes our role plays from those of our competitors is that we use professional actors or members of our firm to serve as role players. We have found that as sincere as assessors may be regarding their desire to be role players, very few can perform this function effectively. What often occurs is over-acting by the assessors or inconsistencies across candidates.
As noted earlier, one of the more common dimensions being evaluated in role play exercises is sensitivity. In a fair number of role play exercises, the role player will whine about the situation he or she finds himself in, or perhaps, will make a variety of excuses for his or her inappropriate behavior. Whereas the candidate (e.g., supervisor) in this type of setting may very often have to bring the role player to a more realistic assessment of his or her behavior, effective supervisors can do this with tact, understanding, and empathy.
It is also often a good strategy to tout the company line during the role play exercise. Candidates often benefit by seeking opportunities to convey the organization's philosophy, values, or mission during their role play exercises. We are still surprised to find candidates who, perhaps in an effort to be sympathetic (although we frankly think that it is more a reflection of their true beliefs), end up agreeing with the perspective of a role player who does nothing but complain about the organization and its leadership.
Finally, candidates in many role play exercises will benefit by providing a "game plan" for the future. Perhaps that game plan will involve future meetings to evaluate progress. Or, maybe, the game plan will entail having the role player attend classes or perform other tasks. In almost all cases, it is valuable for candidates to make decisions (usually with the input of the role player), and establish objectives.
At the start of this article we mentioned one of the more common complaints that candidates have with assessment centers. Another complaint is that some candidates perceive role play exercises to be "unrealistic". Our reply to that complaint is that role plays can be some of the most realistic exercises you will undertake. Indeed, most supervisors tell us that the vast majority of their time is spent dealing with subordinate problems, typically requiring the type of meetings that role play exercises simulate. Thus, the role play exercise can be remarkably realistic and relevant.
On the other hand, it is recognized that, for example, correcting a problem employee's performance is probably going to take more than the typical 20 minutes or so given to candidates in an assessment center. Furthermore, in most settings, the supervisor (i.e., candidate) is likely to know the role player better than they would be known in an assessment center.
Nonetheless, the role play exercise is seldom surpassed for its ability to distinguish among candidates in areas such as interpersonal skills, sensitivity, and problem solving. Effective candidates understand that, as supervisors and managers, they will be frequently called upon to meet with others in order to resolve problems. And these effective candidates will have practiced those skills that are necessary for success in this setting.
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