Understanding Role

A DEFINITION Role is the behavior you expect of yourself in different contexts and behaviors others expect of you. You are always in role and often more than one. The CFAR consultants say it best when it comes to roles at work: “Role is the white space in your job description—all the things expected of you but never specified.”

What’s role got to do with work?

We are always in role (trust me and/or see definition). Most of the time we slip in and out of roles without even thinking about it. In challenging situations role adjustment can become a reflective practice. Have you matched the role to the task? Have you made the role transparent to yourself? How about to your partner or team? For example, if my role is co-creator of a proposal, my behaviors will be very different than when I’m a decision-giver or voice amplifier. By reflecting on my role I can inventory what I can uniquely bring to that situation—related to my strengths, expertise, social identity—and what aspects of myself—hot buttons, not triggers and skill deficits—I may have to manage.

Explore the Roles You Play at Work

Ask your colleagues at work what are the six most important roles they play to be effective.

Create a role deck for each position on staff and on your board using a metaphor and a short description for each one. Exchange stories about what you did to be effective in a challenging situation in those roles. You can also buy the role deck created at GrantCraft now operated by the Foundation Center.

Ambiguous Roles (and why you find them in challenging situations)

Complex roles are freighted with ambiguities. The guard asking for your ID at the front desk is not in a complex role. She knows what to do and so do you. A program officer attending a site visit is in a role layered with ambiguity. Is the purpose of the visit truly clear? How much to ask? What kind of demeanor? What level of candor from both parties? How friendly/how official? What about the power dynamics? Try this: Makean explicit invitation to your partner or team to manage the ambiguity of your roles together.

“Role is what authorizes you to do the work.” —Larry Hirschhorn, CFAR

Try This! Five Practices to Reflect on Role

  1. Analyze your frustrating incidents by asking how you brought your self—for better and worse—to the role.
  2. Create dialogue about your role by uncovering mental images you and others have about your position. Use metaphors to generate role images and expose divergent images within your foundation.
  3. Reverse-engineer your role models by examining how your role models work and not just what they do.
  4. Mobilize your self, not your self-image by tracking desired and dreaded images you bring to work situations to test whether they are helping or hindering being in a particular role.
  5. Avoid the personal trap by remembering we are all struggling to match the role to the task and mobilize and manage ourselves to do good work. Remembering that can help you see that much that feels personal in challenging situations is not personal at all.

(Adapted from GrantCraft’s Personal Strategy)

Created by Jan Jaffe,
The Giving Practice