What Role Do You Play?
Define what role you play at work and how it affects interactions with others
In the workplace, everyone plays a distinct part—both in the organization at large and on individual teams. You might be the voice of reason, the organizer, or the naysayer. Maybe you are the devil’s advocate, the process guru, or the strategist. When you join any team, you end up taking on a role, and that role evolves in conjunction with your style and personality. It goes beyond your title or job description, and it is very much dependent on your circumstances: who you are, who else is on the team, and the dynamics at play between you and everyone else. You come to occupy this role, intentionally or not. You identify with it, and when in doubt, you default to it.
This phenomenon extends beyond the workplace, most obviously in families, where each child takes on a role. The smart one. The athletic one. The quiet one. Of course, kids are not one-dimensional, and they are rarely ever exclusive embodiments of these characteristics, which they all display to varying extents. That said, falling into these generalized labels allows them to contrast themselves with their siblings. They provide a sense of identity and direction, just like they do on teams. This can both be a point of pride and also a trap that is hard to escape.
Once you have fallen into your role, it can be hard to change. Expectations are set, and the group gets into a groove where each person has a fixed part to play. Even if you don’t love the role or feel pigeonholed, the inertia can be hard to overcome. That’s why being mindful about the role you play is so important. It can mean the difference between feeling stuck and being successful.
Learn the Roles
The roles people play are most evident when you’re new to a team. Because you don’t have a map of the existing landscape, you are drawing it from experiences you’ve already had. This gives you a perspective that doesn’t exist for those who have been there for a long time.
I remember when I was asked to join a cross-functional leadership team earlier in my career. The team brought together senior leaders from across the company to collaborate, and I was the newest member of this long-standing group. After the first few meetings, I pulled my mentor aside and shared my observations.
There was a clear hierarchy in the room. The most senior member of the team led the meetings, although it might be more accurate to say that they “hosted” them. One person acted as the leader’s right hand, reiterating their decisions, confirming recollections, and otherwise ensuring that the meetings went smoothly. Another person played the role of the sage, only weighing in on meaty topics, and even then, only rarely. The group listened carefully when he spoke. One person was the scribe, the keeper of notes and action items. Another was the provocateur, asking the hard questions and pushing the conversation to new places. Yet another was the observer and doer, never speaking but making things happen behind the scenes.
Even though I knew nearly everyone before I joined the team, their interactions with each other were unlike those they had outside the group. They took on roles that were part of a set pattern, and each new person who joined after me fit themselves into the paradigm in some way.
When you join a group for the first time, the dynamics will be obvious to you, but over time, you will stop noticing them. Take note of established roles when you start. Learn them. Speak to others in the room about the interactions and relationships you notice in order to understand the context. If you have been part of a group for a while, remember to stop and observe. Take stock of what roles you’ve seen people fall into, and why. Ask yourself what role you have taken on without noticing. Is it the one you want to play?
Choosing Your Role
One of the dangers of being on a team is falling into a role that is ill-fitting or uncomfortable. When you’re new to a group, think hard about what you're good at and what you love, versus what you hate doing. Consider what brings you joy and ignites your passion, and ask yourself how that contrasts to the people around you. Make a conscious decision about how you want to fit into that dynamic.
Even if you know what you want to do, remember that a strong role is one that works in concert with those around you. If you’re in the middle of a Broadway production of The Lion King and you burst into a Hamilton song, the entire play is thrown off. The story stops making sense, and the tone of the show clashes with the tone of the song. In the same way, if you try to take an observer role on a team where everyone is expected to contribute to the conversation, you will upset the dynamic.
Your role has to fit into the context in which you exist, and the players around you have to understand and accept you in that space. Be conscious of how you envision yourself interacting with your team, and consider how that fits into the bigger picture. If it fits well, you can take steps to make sure that’s where you end up, rather than getting shoehorned into the wrong role. This will help you make sure you’re playing the right part, one that benefits both you and your team.