Become a more engaging leader with role-play

"Wow! I can't believe how horrible that made me feel!" one of my clients confessed. She and her colleagues were on the verge of discovering how to radically improve the way they engage with their own clients. They all worked for a government licensing group, the kind of team that's responsible for things like licensing restaurants, spas, retirement homes and daycares.

A big part of their job was going out to do on-site inspections. And it had become a real problem for them. The people whose premises they were inspecting hated having them on site and did everything they could to make the visits difficult and unpleasant. Or, at least that's the story I'd been told. 😉 But I had a hunch there was more to it than that.

So I set up a role-play exercise for my clients – the inspection team – to see what it felt like to be on the other end of an inspection. It turned out that they hated it. They felt that they were being treated like criminals, that the inspectors didn't respect them or their work, and that they were being smothered in red tape. The whole activity only took 15 minutes, but it was transformative in helping the inspection team discover how to improve engagement with their clients and generate better outcomes for all.

Knowing how to create real, lasting engagement is a core leadership skill. You can't get anything done if you can't get people to buy into the ideas you're selling - if you can't find a way to make them want to join you on your journey.

When I was doing my graduate research on engagement, I discovered that relevance is an essential ingredient to getting people on board. Just as you have to have a clear value proposition that is relevant to customers when you try to sell them a new product, leaders need to be able to show people how their big ideas are also relevant to them. This is especially true when doing things like writing proposals or pitching strategies.

But being able to stand in someone else's shoes and see things from their perspective can be tough for many. As a result, leaders end up targeting their messages exclusively to people who are just like them, who share their beliefs and values.

Running through a quick role-play exercise is a simple and powerful way to ensure that you understand the value your idea has for somebody who is different than you, so that you can tailor your approach to make it more appealing to them.

Here are 3 tips to make your role-play experience productive.

  • Study your character. Create a short profile of the person you're going to role-play, focussing on what you know about their values, beliefs, experiences and goals.
  • Pick a realistic scenario. Identify situations that have historically been problematic or represent an opportunity to change the nature of your relationship.
  • Pay attention to how you feel. Engage your heart as well as your head. Take a beat before and after you speak to see how the experience you're having is affecting you.

If you're nervous about not being able to "act" or appearing too vulnerable during the role-play, try it out first with someone you feel safe and comfortable with. Practice goes a long way to making this a productive experience.

Whether or not you see yourself as a leader, deepening your engagement and empathy skills to get to know others will help you be a better collaborator and move your goals forward. And who knows? You just might learn a little something about yourself too. 😉