The Roles We Play: A Good Exercise


Throughout our personal and professional lives, we take on different roles, becoming more or less important to those with whom we interact. We are a son or daughter to our parents, perhaps a brother or sister if we have siblings. We have been or continue to be students to those who have taught or teach us now. If and when we are employed, we are a colleague, co-worker and employee. Should we be out of work but looking, we are a job seeker.

In our work locations we have different roles of course. In addition to being an employee, we also have a specific job title. We are a Clerk, Sales Representative, Custodian, Labourer or Attendant for example. In addition to these titles, we may be the go-to person for some expertise we possess. We might be in the role of Mentor, Supervisor, Support Staff, Reception, Guide or Leader. Merging these roles we are a Custodial Supervisor, a Reception Clerk or Sales Leader.

Others see us and place varying values on us as individuals in the roles we play. While someone might value us as an indispensable colleague, it’s probable others who hold a differing view of our value. It’s also fair and accurate to say that others perception of us and our role can change over time. Where they saw us as a mentor or tutor in helping them get started, there comes a time when they see us as their equal; their partner or peer. We might come to value our Supervisor over time, changing our view of them and / or their role.

So it is safe to say that we have a number of roles we are simultaneously playing throughout our lives. How often do you pause to consider all the roles you play? Right now; at this present time, you are probably more aware of the role you play (or want to play) with respect to some relationships than you are of others. If you have a child who is expecting their own first child, you may be so excited at your future role of Grandparent, that you share your current role as an Expectant Grandparent. It’s as if you can’t wait for the role to be official, so you create one role that relies on a future event, (the birth of the grandchild) to make your new title and role a reality.

There can be times at work when the role we see ourselves playing, and the role others would like us to play differ. We may be content to play the role of the one who likes to work in isolation and with autonomy. However we may find ourselves being encouraged or assigned the roles of team leader, mentor or advisor. Or where we once worked happily in a large space with walls, we might find ourselves moved to where there are no walls, offices and cubicles, requiring us to be more sociable and engaging. We may have to clarify our role if a chatty person sees us in the role of Socializer and we don’t want that role.

So what does this role awareness do for us? It can be of tremendous value in achieving a measure of happiness if we know a role we want to play, leading us to acquiring the skills, experience and connections we’ll need to make that desired role a reality. So if you come to value the role of leadership and being legitimately seen and valued as a Leader, you look for opportunities to lead, building one experience at a time. You then turn your growing experience as a Leader into greater opportunities citing earlier experiences as your new-found qualifications.

Conversely, if you are unhappy or dissatisfied in your workplace, examining the role you have and the role you’d like might illuminate your discontent. You may wish to be perceived as a Leader, but if your colleagues don’t see you in that role, you may be consistently frustrated or disappointed. If you’ve ever looked at someone and thought, “I’d like to do their job”, or “I’d be good in the role”, you get the idea. What you’re really doing is seeing yourself in another role and realizing your desire for it. If it’s appealing to the point where you want it bad enough, move to position yourself to take advantage. If that role is scary or unpleasant, (as in, “I’d die if I had to give a presentation like they do!”) you’re not going to move in that direction.

A good exercise both individually and in groups is to take a sheet of paper and list all the roles you and others have played both in the past and in the present. We are Customers when we buy, Browsers when we just look. We are Riders on the bus, Residents in our apartments, Clients perhaps with the utility companies, Friends of our friends. Some of us will have short lists, others long lists. Some of us will look at others lists and realize there’s more to add on our own. Knowing our roles can be a boost to our self-esteem, see ourselves as connected and valued, and give us direction as we move next to identifying the roles we’d like to have in the future.

Listing and talking about why future roles appeal to us gives insight into the skills and experiences we may wish to acquire.

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