Dawn Swarbrick, HR manager for Railtrack Southern, on a behavioural programme that is having a significant impact on the business
In common with many industries, the rail industry had placed technical expertise higher on the agenda than people management skills and there was a clear need to develop the overall management style, culture and individual level of capability.
This became particularly apparent in a Railtrack Southern executive attitude survey in 1999, which highlighted the development needs of first-line managers. We decided to initiate and develop a comprehensive management development programme.
Interaction was brought in to design and deliver the programme in close partnership with our HR department. It was aimed at 75 frontline managers and broken down into seven modules: Managing change, Customers, Finance, People, Projects, Self, Managing safety.
The Managing People module has been very well received and we feel it deserves particular attention for its refreshing and innovative approach.
The module was designed to help participants get the best out of people in a variety of one-to-one situations. While there are a great many policies and procedures to support managers in these situations, we wanted to make the main emphasis of the programme behavioural. In my experience, it is only through the understanding and use of appropriate behaviours that the policies can be effectively applied.
With an experiential approach to learning, Interaction achieved the behavioural focus by using trained actors, and role-play scenarios that were taken from the working environment. We believe it is this challenging approach that has led to such positive results.
We asked everyone involved for feedback on their experience.
"Using actors was invaluable – it made my job much easier," says interaction facilitator Lucy Neale.
"With no personal histories to worry about or time wasted in ‘getting into character’, it focuses participants solely on the learning.
"We had organised for the actors to spend a day in the participants’ working environment prior to the programme and it had clearly paid off.
"Their skill in operating on an emotional level and responding with subtlety brought a refreshing sense of clarity and credibility to the training."
The actors were free to challenge participants and ease them out of their comfort zone. "It allowed me to concentrate entirely on observing and giving high-quality feedback. I had a clearer vision and flexibility when it came to initiating time-outs, re-runs and on-the-spot coaching."
Neale praises one of the actors, Neil Bett. "Participants valued his input – the aura of a stranger interacting at such an emotional, human level has a certain mystique and engenders respect," she says.
According to Bett, having facilitators is a great support because they have an objective overview. "Lucy’s role was crucial as she held the balance between the actor and the participant. My role was to operate on a purely emotionally honest level," he says.
"I encouraged participants to be themselves as well as challenging their behaviour. I was direct and personal.
"Lucy had a clear understanding of my approach and supported the direct responses I gave to participants. She then provided a context for participants to explore feedback, taking it further to make it relevant to their working situation."
Although Bett is briefed on his character beforehand, it is the way he acts that makes for credibility. He sees feedback as crucial. "As a trained actor, I am comfortable being direct and honest about how I feel. I am also in a special position in that I am an ‘outside’ voice, so I can say things that colleagues might not feel so comfortable in saying.
"Speaking from direct experience of an individual added yet more weight and credibility to the feedback. For example, I could comment on a participant’s particular attitude from my direct experience of them during the role-play," he says.
"We could then re-run the scenario, with the participant having an understanding of their behaviour and its effect on others."
"The actors were brilliant," says participant Mick Hamill. "I’ve done a lot of management training, and role playing with actors is so much more real.
"Because the actors reacted naturally to whatever we presented them with, it really made me think. Neil was very honest and no-one got away with being half-hearted. The range of emotional responses Neil covered was very powerful. From aggression to tears, we had to deal with everything.
"Having the chance to act out scenarios that I am dealing with at work is so valuable."
Hamill cites the example of a colleague who has been a manager for a number of years. "He received feedback that he needed to focus more on listening. He has since had to do a welfare visit and was thanked afterwards for his understanding attitude."
Hamill thinks the effect on himself is remarkable. "I started as a manager a year ago and at first my attitude was very heavy handed – as I now see it. I went in initially concerned only with getting the job done and I wasn’t aware of the effect this was having on people.
"I’ve since had to deal with a number of serious situations affecting people that I manage, and I am so much more able to listen and understand."
Interaction comes up with the goods
We wanted to make each module of our core management skills programme stand out as special. We trusted that Interaction would come up with some creative ideas – and they did.
We were a little concerned initially about using actors in the Managing People module – in terms of how they would be managed and whether sufficient control could be maintained.
However, Interaction handled a potentially sensitive situation with great care. Managing People was designed specifically for us – as were all the modules – and it was a particularly valuable module because it focused on real situations within the business. Interaction paid great attention to detail to the extent that the actors spent time in our working environment where they picked up our culture and behaviours perfectly.
What stood out above all was the level of realism that using trained actors achieved. At ease with being emotional and direct, they pushed people through their comfort zones but without stepping too far over the line.
The Managing People module has significantly enhanced confidence levels, with managers now dealing much more effectively with challenging situations.
Interaction worked with a local professional acting company, Barking Productions, for the role play and the Interaction facilitators were Adrian Bennett, Nigel Denning and Lucy Neale.
On test – Managing People as one module of the Railtrack Southern Core Management Skills Programme. Designed and delivered by: Interaction Development & Learning, The Old Chapel, Fairview Drive, Redland, Bristol BS6 6PH,
Tel: 0117 924 8030, Fax: 0870 168 0556, Web link: www.othergroup.co.uk/interaction