Saturday 5 May 2018

What role are you playing?

Son, daughter, husband, wife, mother, father, sister, brother, friend are all roles that come with expectations, whether realistic or not.

I was only reading this morning about a new mother finding it very difficult because of all the expectations she had around what a 'mother' should do and, perhaps more impactfully in this instance, what she needed to do in order to be a perfect mother, and found herself failing. The gap she perceived between expectation and reality was huge, and she spiralled into feeling she was failing her son as a result and did not deserve to be a mother.

Using roles helps us make sense of our day - helping us bypass having to make decisions about the appropriate way to act in every moment. Familiarity, level of honesty, the words we use, tonality, thoughts, beliefs and our behaviours are all subtly and unconsciously changed to meet the role we're playing. As a sister this is how I act, as a daughter this, and as a friend yet another.

To help apply this idea into working life there's two words I'd like to explore from that last paragraph - 'unconscious' and 'playing'. 


The majority of the time we don't consciously choose the role we're taking on. On some unconscious level we decide what hat we're needing to put on, and then act accordingly.

The need for a firefighter brings out certain qualities and behaviours, 
and the need for policing others.
The unconscious nature of role playing does however come with some disadvantages - the lack of choice.

For one client it was as if they slept in their ambulance driver hat, constantly alert and looking for people to save and help out. No wonder then that this hyper alertness led to burn out. It was only with awareness that they were able to retire the hat, and for them all the unhelpful behaviours associated with it.
The unconscious nature of the roles we choose also impacts our working life.

For example, taking on the role of bureaucrat or the role of innovator would bring out very different ways of behaving. If this is done unconsciously we're unaware that we have choice about how we're acting, and the underlying beliefs that give energy to that doing. That is, we just do what the role dictates.

A role of bureaucrat could hold beliefs around the need for a process, paperwork, approval, the right way of doing things and so on. These beliefs would inform the words, and actions we then embody and demonstrate.

On the other hand (or perhaps its on the other hat) a role of innovator could hold beliefs about there being no right way, taking the road less travelled, needing to test boundaries and so on. The resulting behaviours would look and sound and feel very different to those demonstrated by the bureaucrat.

Before a meeting therefore it might be useful to understand what hat you've got on and to consider its appropriateness for the meeting, and what behaviours it brings out in you. Is your bureaucrat hat going to help you to achieve your objectives more or less than the innovator hat? Or might another hat be more helpful?

There's no right or wrong way to do this, and that's where playing comes in.


The roles we're talking about here are metaphors. We're not really a firefighter being asked to put out real fires. When metaphorically asked to put on the firefighting hat however, it's as if the manual of how to act comes with it. Use of that manual certainly makes life easier and takes up less thinking time. We're ready to go immediately - just like the firefighter jumping into their gear and are in their fire engine within seconds.

What's useful to remember though is, the roles we play are metaphors and are therefore NOT set in stone. Perhaps for a real firefighter there's written role description, but here they've our own set of manuals that we've developed over time with our own beliefs. We also know how to operate the manual for some roles better than others, and some feel much more comfortable.

Which means we have a choice about the roles we put on in any situation. Playing lightly with those roles therefore can help us achieve the results we're aiming for.

For example:
  • If you're struggling with your expert hat - might changing to a facilitator or collaborator hat help you more?
  • Maybe it's more about having a series of hats and not starting with the expert hat, but instead putting your competent hat on first. Knowing over time it will be replaced with an experienced hat, and then expert hat and even concluding with your mastery hat. 
  • Might your business partner hat need a little millinery flourish to make it fit your head better?
  • Alternatively the manual for your innovator hat might need updating and redefining. 
  • Or perhaps your graduate hat needs to be retired so that it's not available - for you to put on and for others to see and react to?
No right or wrong - just an appreciation that they're metaphors that help our minds make sense of the world, and as such can be consciously changed to support us rather than left unconsciously to hinder.

A post from the archives on Are Procurement the bad cops explores this idea from a different angle.

The solution for the new mother I mentioned earlier was only achieved once her expectations of the role were brought into conscious awareness. Once she'd achieved that, then she was able to play more lightly with her definition of the role of mother, to release her aim for perfection, and aim for good enough instead. Perhaps realising that competence evolves over time and mastery doesn't start on day one! This post on the journey to mastery may also help if, like the mother, you're beating yourself up about how quickly you're not picking up something new.

What roles are you playing? Are they enabling you to shine? Or could playing more lightly with alternate roles help?

As ever always available for coaching to explore the roles you or your teams are currently playing, and those you may wish to embody.

Alison Smith
The Purchasing Coach
Helping you break out of your comfort zones

A recent recommendation on LinkedIn about my coaching said:

"Alison is one of the best coaches I have ever had the pleasure of working with (and I've worked with a few!) She has a highly practical nature and combines it with strong intuition and unconventional tools to guide you to find insights and answers to specific challenges. 

She asks powerful thought provoking questions, but it's not just about coming up with answers in your mind; in my session she used various unconventional tools including something called The Transformation Game to help me connect with my intuition to gain new insights and awareness about my situation. Not only that, due to Alison's skill and patience I was able to experience a profound shift in relation to an ongoing challenge that had been holding me back in my life and I left the session with action steps to enable me to progress further.

As with any transformational coaching, you need to be prepared to take responsibility for personal change and get out of your comfort zone to find the answers you need, but Alison makes this easy with her approach.

Whether you're looking for a personal coach or you're looking for a highly skilled executive coach in the workplace for insights, awareness and more importantly a clear idea of the next action to take, if you're ready to try a powerful alternative, I highly recommend you get in touch with Alison."

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