What it means to work in a manager or a worker position – A little simulation game

Is it possible that students gain some experience about work and organisations while being in the classroom? Well, referring to the discussion on experience-based learning, it is in fact possible. I try to enable students to make some experiences about the meaning of being a worker and/or a manager by doing a little simulation game. I found this exercise in Stephen P. Robbins, Timothy Campbell & Timothy A. Judge (2010) Organizational Behavior (1st edition, European Edition), Financial Times/ Prentice Hall. They adapted it from Lee Bolman and Terrence E. Deal (1979) ’A Simple – But Powerful – Power Simulation’, EXCHANGE: THE ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR TEACHING JOURNAL, pp. 38-41.

This little simulation game was originally designed to let students experience power in organisations. I, however, use it a bit differently. I do this game after I introduced students to research on the meaning that work has for employees (one session on the look from beyond) and to research about what managers actually do (one session on the look from above). With the game I attempt to offer them an opportunity to experience some of the aspects that I addressed in these sessions.

The students are allocated to one of three groups (top group, middle group, lower group). The top group has the overall responsibility for the effectiveness of the organisation. The lower group manufactures the products of the organisation, that is slogans to promote the management profession (although, I am very creative with regards to the profession, for which the slogans should be, depending on the study programs the students take). Each member of the middle group is responsible for one team of the lower group and for communicating both downwards and upwards. I play the customer, negotiating terms and conditions with the top group, which is then supposed to ensure that both the agreed quantity and quality is delivered on the stipulated deadline.

I am not only playing the customer, though, but also observe what is going on and from time to time add a bit of social dynamic to the play. For example, after a while I ask the members of the lower group whether they have received any payment (the top group has sweets at their disposal in order to pay staff) or to what extent they expect to receive one. I also prompt them to think about breaks (the simulation, easily runs for more than one hour). Beginning to consider payment and breaks, along with other working conditions, the lower group usually formulates demands towards their direct supervisor from the middle group. Subsequently, the middle group brings this aspect to the table of the top group, what sometimes creates some confusion…

Even though the direction that the play takes very much depend on the group of students, I observed that in every case, they ‘tasted’ what it might mean to work in a management or worker role. The top group, for instance, usually tell that they feel the burden of being responsible for both the organisation, yet, also satisfying the need of the customer. This often results is stress and a focus on economical aspects; sometime neglecting the people. They also learn that the classical function of managing, i.e. planning, organising, motivating, controlling and co-ordinating, do not really match their experiences. What they experience comes much closer to Mintzberg’s (1989) observations of what managers do. The lower group usually experiences quite a bit of pressure to perform well and to deliver the expected amount of slogans. Although they all agree that developing slogans is creative work, hardly anyone of them would go for such a job. This group also experienced the constraints that are set by the organisation and the behaviour of the groups above them. The middle group rather often experiences to be in-between, receiving pressure from the top and the lower-group. Coping with this pressure often proves to be difficult and they  feel a uncomfortable.

Overall I believe that this little simulation in fact enables students to experience what it means to engage in paid work under the constrains of an organisation that is hierarchically structured.