Professional Role Play Makes A Real Difference

In 1999 Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman published the seminal book, ‘First, Break all the Rules’. At the heart of the book is the presentation of outcomes from a massive Gallup research study. This study was conducted over twenty-five years and involved over one hundred thousand employee respondents across more than two and half thousand business units.

The principal output was twelve questions. These questions capture the most important information about the core elements of what is needed in organisations to attract, focus and retain the most talented employees. You may be familiar with them. Do I know what is expected of me at work? In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work? Is there someone at work who encourages my development? In the last six months, have I talked with someone about my progress? Collectively, they tell the story of those things that really make a difference; the conditions that maximise engagement and motivation, that encourage employees to give of their best, to perform, to thrive.

For the last year Impromptu has been supporting Lane4 in the delivery of an intensive and extensive roll-out of development centres, being provided to all staff with management responsibility at our mutual client, NFU Mutual, a leading insurance company specialising in agricultural and rural insurance products and services. NFU Mutual’s core business is in the agricultural sector but is also offers personal, commercial insurance and investment products to a wide range of non-farming customers. During 2014, 250 middle managers have been through the development centres and 2015 sees this being extended to include all first line managers too.

NFU Mutual use Gallup’s twelve questions (Q12 scores) to measure engagement. The success and impact of the development centres is very strongly aligned with measurement of continuous improvement of the company’s Q12 scores. Over the first few months of the programme the Q12 scores of the first 88 development centre participants and, importantly, those they manage, has been monitored. Against all questions, there has been notable and statistically significant, positive results, against what were already very good scores.

For instance, against the question, ‘In the last six months, have I talked with someone about my progress?’ the responses reveal 7% higher scores for development centre participants over non-attendees. Against the question, ‘Is there someone at work who encourages my development?’ the difference is 9%. And against the question, ‘Do I have a best friend at work?’ the change is a striking 12%.

And these results are equally reflected in the scores of their direct reports. For example, against the previous year’s outcomes for the question, ‘Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?’ the results reveal a statistically significant movement of 0.17 (the scoring is on a 0-5 scale, where meaningful shifts are measured in small fractions). Against the question, ‘In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work?’ the improvement is staggering 0.24.

The evidence clearly points toward the development centres having a real and important impact, and this is particularly relevant given that one NFU Mutual’s three Guiding Principles, and instrumental in the delivery of their business goals, is the reinforcement of NFU Mutual as ‘A Great Place to Work’.

So, what is the link with professional, business role play? Throughout the two day programme, each participant engages with three challenging role plays; one of 35 minutes duration and the other two of 50 minutes each. These are designed to stretch participants around three contrasting scenarios, each related to NFU Mutual’s performance management system, ‘Managing Achievement’. The role plays are observed by either a Lane4 or NFU Mutual qualified coach. The role players authentically portray NFU Mutual employees and, importantly, provide focused feedback on the participant’s impact which is increasingly responsive to participant learning priorities as the centre unfolds. This feedback informs ongoing coaching conversations between the participant and his/her coach.

Clearly, role play isn’t solely responsible for the remarkable improvement in Q12 scores. However, we believe that this element of the development centres is a substantial and powerful one. Feedback from both participants and coaches consistently reinforces the sense that the impact on participants is material and considerable; that it routinely triggers ‘light bulb moments’, that it unlocks potential, that it catalyses real change, that it boosts confidence, that it gives the participants real insights that they can carry through into their conversations and relationships with their people.

And this brings me back to the beginning. What for me is most striking about the proposition held in Buckingham and Coffman’s work is the follow up research that Gallup carried out to test the efficacy of the twelve questions. What was discovered is that what makes the most difference to employees scores, how they feel about their job, how engaged and how motivated they are, is demonstrably the impact, not of charismatic leadership, benefits, perks, pay, the building, but the relationship with their immediate line manager. The manager is the key.

It is immensely satisfying therefore to feel that we have been an important part of something that is making a real difference, not just to people’s performance, but to their very enthusiasm for the work they do. It is, by extension, hugely satisfying that we have helped NFU Mutual to create A Great Place to Work.

Steve Harvey, Director Impromptu