The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Taking a look at roles

A client of mine seeks to become an expert. For him, it is not only a role but also an identity. His idea is, that once he can be in a space where he is perceived as an expert, he will feel more at ease and will be treated with respect.

In contrast to the job descriptions assigning us titles, the role my client is talking about is an archetypal role. It is the type of role sociologists and social psychologists mean when they talk about role theory. The idea being, that we gravitate towards basic and commonly understood social roles. These roles shape much of our decision-making and actions. In teams, we’ll regularly find people who are the ones everyone goes to when it is necessary to solve a technical problem, or when they need someone to listen to them, or when they seek advice. There are also the people who are known for their process orientation, their ability for decisive actions, etc.

We recognize these roles, however, given the personality type theories, these people are often perceived only through the strengths they exhibit. That’s because strengths ease the link to tasks, and thus to organizing a team according to the tasks that have to be achieved. It’s a top-down approach to organization.

As Roger Lehman and Hal Gregersen recently described, there is more to the idea of roles in a fast-changing world.

Roles are a way for people to perceive their self and to identify themselves with what they do. It is out of their role, that they perceive what tasks they can take up by themselves and how they will contribute to the team. Roles precede the decision as to what tasks have to be done and eases perception of the tasks others will take up. Seeing the roles others take up, makes teamwork more fluid.

Thinking about one’s own role makes the shift to another role easier as it allows one to see one’s place in the organization and how it interconnects with others. In coaching, looking at someone’s role and role shift is frequently whenever someone decides himself for a career transition.

Where the look at roles is often overseen, is when the environment in which we operate is shifting. This is true for crisis just as much as a change process in an organization. As Gregersen and Lehman point out, to master transitions we need awareness of the roles we’ve chosen as well as if and how they might be changing in the process.

Team members who don’t make themselves aware of their roles, may not realize why they feel uncomfortable in the change process and attribute it to the learning they need to do. However, when it is their role that is disrupted, it also affects their sense of self. A disruption that creates much more resistance. It threatens their confidence in themselves as their habitual ways to decide and act might not be adapted to the new situation.


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