Hey, it’s real play not role play

Fresh Air Learning Blog 36

Last week I wrote about how two actors brought life to a mock board exercise that was part of a non-executive recruiting process. They went out of themselves to inhabit fictitious board characters. Their role-play was awesome.

This week I supported an experiential learning exercise for a group of executives. We were using the Barry Oshry (1995) power framework of Tops, Middles, Bottoms and Customers – roles we all inhabit every day – to help the executives examine a real work issue from multiple, connected perspectives.

The executives were divided up. The Tops had a plush boardroom, the Middles had a busy open plan meeting space, and the Bottoms had a room that was soul-less, lacked enough chairs, and was freezing cold.  The Customers had a warm, well-appointed, magazine- and coffee-full waiting room.

Everyone was invited to adopt the relevant power perspective, and to rotate around the different environments on a timetable. A number of scripted events connected some of the groups during the exercise.

Almost everyone went into role-play. They adopted different levels of over-the-top-ness in their mannerisms, tones of voice, energy etc. It was as if they went “out” of themselves to inhabit fictitious external characters. Just like actors.

Yes, there was some value to this. However the invitation, and the real power of the exercise was to inhabit their real selves; to go “in” and be the people they are when they are – every day – Tops, Middles, Bottoms and Customers; to draw on the knowing they already possess; the knowing they somehow lose sight of and don’t use in the bustle of business life.

The seemingly natural reaction to go “external”, to talk about the “its” and “them” is part of a narrative we commonly hear in organisational life. It is as if many of us forget to bring ourselves fully to work.

We seem to be at our most comfortable holding stuff at a distance; and we seem to be at our least comfortable and competent when we explore – together – personal issues such as trust, compassion and challenge.

The Oshry exercise was part of a journey to develop and integrate self-awareness, relational maturity, and contextual sense making; to create the conditions for collective connected thinking, dialogue and impactful action.

It is tough going for those involved but the self-discovery and business outcomes are stellar.

Dave Stewart

The Fresh Air Learning Company