I spent many happy hours during my childhood watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? (the original UK version, of course), a stand-up comedy show where a group of four act out different scenarios suggested by the audience with particular themes, traits and/or restrictions on what they can do verbally or physically. I spent my time admiring people like Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie and their ability to switch characters and plot lines at the drop of a hat. Not only that, but almost everything they did came with some comic value (and from what I’ve seen of them they’re still just as funny to this day).
Years later, I found myself asked to run an hour long session on something to do with line management, as part of our company’s Community of Practice on the topic. I’ve had a preference for practice over theory for most of my life (particularly at university while on a mainly theoretical course) and fancied emphasising the “Practice” part of the meeting’s name. It wasn’t that I wanted to turn line management into a stand-up routine, but Who’s Line Is It Anyway?’s difficult situations and additional imposed restrictions on how those situations could happen felt like they would make for an interesting line management role-playing exercise.
I decided to split the attendees into pairs – one would play a line manager role, line managing the other in the pair who would play a “direct report” role. I developed some decks of cards (with the help of various resources including The Coach’s Casebook and numerous lists of personalities available on the web) called the Situation Deck and Personality Deck. The basis of the idea was that each pair would alternate between the roles of line manager and direct report, with the line manager picking up a card from the Situation Deck and for around 5 minutes, role-playing that line management scenario.
I split the session up into three rounds, sandwiched between some introductions and time for reflection at the end:
Round 1: understand the general format (no Personality card)
Role-playing is generally not an easy thing to do. I’ve heard that those doing stand-up often start by running through various warm up exercises, similar to stretching before physical activity, just to ensure that their creativity is loosened up and a few inhibitions lost. So I started the session with something fairly simple – line management situations to be acted out with no additional constraints, and a decent amount of time in which to play through the scenario.
A line manager in a pair took one card from the Situation Deck, read it without showing the direct report (unless it said otherwise) and then took 5-6 minutes to talk about the situation with their direct report.
This worked well as some had questions about the format which took up a little time for clarifications, and there was some hesitancy going into it. Emphasising that it was a safe space in which to try things out with no repercussions helped relax the pairs a little bit, but as they all went through round 1 with its two situations and switched roles, they all seemed to settle into the exercise.
Round 2: impose a restriction to make things difficult (direct report sees and plays trait on Personality card)
After the warm up came the complication – now, the direct reports got a chance to take and enact one trait from the Personality Deck, without the line manager knowing what it was. The line managers took a card from the Situation Deck as before. They had a little less time, around 4-5 minutes as they were more familiar with the exercise.
All of a sudden, the line managers were trying to have potentially awkward conversations with their direct reports who were no longer responding in an expected way. Maybe they were being evasive, aggressive, suddenly very assertive or coming up with excuses, leaving the line managers in a certain amount of confusion. Their tactics for talking about their Situation card now derailed by unexpected behaviours.
I’d asked them all to play the roles respectfully, as though they were talking with their manager at work or someone for whom they’re responsible. Otherwise, it would be all too easy for the role-playing to get rather over the top. After the round, I asked and found that some of the line managers were able to identify Personality traits or some at least comparable behaviour, but it was still awkward for them. Interestingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, direct reports found playing their Personality traits to be tricky as well – images of comedians finding that same thing rather tough on Whose Line Is It Anyway? came flooding back.
Round 3: change the rules to make it more realistic (both parties see direct report’s Personality card)
The final round was arranged to be the same as the previous one, but this time the line manager got to see the Personality card as well. It meant that for the final round, they were able to go into it more prepared, taking care with their wording as they worked through the situation but also having a better understanding of why their direct report was responding or reacting in particular ways.
The conversations were noticeably less fraught, with the line managers treading more carefully and direct reports presumably being triggered far less frequently by what their line managers were saying.
The round was designed to be more realistic – although still contrived – giving line managers the chance to better know their direct reports, just as if they’d been line managing them for some time and knew their personalities. It didn’t make the Situation cards any easier to deal with, but it did make their approach and interactions more appropriate.
After the round, I gave the pairings some time to discuss a few things with each other:
- How the final round went
- What approaches worked well, given the Personality card that was in play
- What they felt their partner in the pairing had done well during the session
The last part was important to me, especially given some of the more awkward interactions I’d witnessed. I wanted people to leave the room having taken something positive away, having had to look for something positive in their partner, and feeling respectful.
Shortly before the end I joked to the participants that they were welcome to take decks of the cards with them to play with other colleagues, friends and family, but realised that it might be something useful for a wider audience – you, dear readers. So I’ve attached the decks of cards for you to print out (double-sided), cut into decks and try with your teams should you wish.
I can give some tips for running the exercise:
- We had a time limit of an hour, which is reasonable so long as you start promptly and stick to timings of 5-6 minutes for each of the situations in round 1, and 4-5 minutes for the four situations from rounds 2 and 3
- Remind people that it’s a safe space in which to practice, that nobody is judging them and that nobody is going to be asked to “perform” in front of the rest of the group
- Put a timer up somewhere so attendees can see it – more importantly (since very few looked) give them some sort of bell or beep 1 minute from the end each time
- Do make sure there’s time to reflect on the exercise at the end and to discuss takeaways
- Recommend to the pairs that they don’t get too bogged down in specifics and details – the short times for the role-playing help avoid too much detail, but having the pairs talk generally makes for easier conversations
- Shuffled decks of cards make for some great random pairings of Situation and Personality, but these can sometimes be very easy to role-play and sometimes very hard – I quite liked the variety, but you may want to remove the randomness and deliberately pair cards together
If you do give it a go, please do leave a comment below – I’d also welcome any feedback on the exercise, format, decks of cards or any other part of it.