Can scientists role play?

Written by: John Faulkes


At some time or other, anyone in an organisation reaching a certain level of responsibility will take some training that involves role play, observation and feedback. 

This typically occurs during courses for essential people skills such as managing performance, assertive communication, dealing with conflict, and so on.  It's valuable to increase self-awareness and help aspiring managers to understand which techniques work effectively.

However, some take to it better than others.

What we observe

In several decades of work with people in life science, I've found that in  general, more people at the 'early' end of things - usually research scientists - have a problem with it, compared to those at later stages. Development, Clinical, Project Management, Clinical, Commercial.

Before we examine this we do have to be careful to define what we mean by 'role play'. For example, giving fluent presentations is a critical career skill for anyone who aspires to progress, and especially for the science community. Generally people will improve their technique by practicing in front of observers (plus video cameras). Though this may not be everyone's favourite ordeal, very few will object in principle. They will be presenting their own work. It's them being them.

As you can guess from the words 'role play' - something slightly different is implied. Take a coaching practice scenario: at one point, some class participants get a briefing describing how they should play a 'difficult' character, either imaginary or real, to give others a challenging task. Often this works, at least well enough to generate some useful observation and feedback. But it may not. Participants may gripe about doing this. Some will be unable to do it. This is because of a dilemma that some find hard - temporarily being someone else.

Why does it happen?

A quick look at some of the psychometric tests we use sheds more light on this. Especially those that use an empathic dimension, commonly measured as 'Concern for Task' and 'Concern for People'. Also the pervasive use of 'STEM' to describe individuals particular in scientific and technical roles. A fresh study of these differences was published recently in New Scientist1. It profiled 'Empathisers' - who have increased capability for sensing what others are thinking, and 'Systemisers' - who have more an ability for recognising patterns and connections - the foundation of invention.

Career scientists may then, be less able to put themselves into the minds of others, and so less able to role play. The most noticeable, so-called 'Extreme systemisers', may make up only 3% of the population. But would be more concentrated in an environment such as Pharma Research. Whatever, you only need a few in your training class and your carefully designed role-play sessions may be disrupted - as well as you putting some of learners under stress.

So what's to be done?

Well, there are a few alternatives.

  •  If you are the trainer - consider role-playing some of the practicing learners' subjects yourself.
  •  A more analytical workshop may be much more useful for research people. Focusing them on their real situations and plotting out with them what they'd do, step by step.
  • If you overseeing the design of training programs, you might think to change the game. Especially with behaviours in a team environment; rather than an 'artificial' piece in a training course, substitute an observation of someone in the work setting.

Get some help

We've been grappling with these challenges for years! I'd be pleased to talk through your own experiences and help you design fully inclusive learning experiences for your people.

  1.  New Scientist 5 December 2020 'Your inventing mind'

John Faulkes - 27th August 2021 @ 09:16