“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…” William Shakespeare
Whatever we do in life, we are playing a role. Be it employee, manager, co-worker, mother, wife, brother, uncle, friend, teammate, citizen – each of us plays numerous roles.
These roles are defined in part by societal mores, by external expectations, partly by environment, by history, culture and lastly, by our self-definition of, and how we perceive, each particular role along with our ambition (what we bring to it). Within each role, there is a significant amount of scope.
This has a tremendous impact on how we live our lives, the satisfaction we get, the success we achieve, the respect and trust we gain, the relationships we build.
But it is important to realize and acknowledge that this is the case, we do fulfill specified roles.
At the Office
Perhaps the most complicated roles to play are the ones in the corporate realm. The need to determine how professional, objective, and conformist to be versus how personal, how much empathy to have and how much individuality to show can be challenging.
Employment is a contract between you and your employer. You are paid for certain agreed-upon deliverables. You provide certain deliverables in order to earn your salary. Part of the agreement is the role you are expected to play internally and externally for the organization. (This idea for this post came out of a brief discussion of the role customer service agents play in last week’s blog about complaints.)
The organization, management, your direct manager, your colleagues, your reports, all of the people you interact with, have expectations of you. As you have expectations of them.
But how do you learn what exactly is acceptable and what should be avoided at all costs? That you can dispense with the tie, but golf shirts are not accepted? That you can come in late, but you shouldn’t leave early? That you can expect the president to drop by your office at any time for an update on your latest projects? That management meetings will break for a good practical joke?
How do we balance being authentic and genuine with business-like when the expectation is that you should act objectively and professionally in your dealings?
Listen, Observe and Communicate
I don’t have the answers. This is a challenge I have struggled with throughout my career. I know I tend to err on the side of professionalism, which may come across as standoffish, but I am personally okay with this being the case.
There are a few things that I’ve learned that may help. And these are things on which I continue to work.
Listen more than you talk. In meetings, one-on-one’s, and in the lunchroom. Listening is participating.
Focus on the conversation. Put away all distractions, especially if you are at your desk. Close your laptop, your writing pad, or turn away from your monitor and concentrate your attention on the participants. If you’re distracted, it will be obvious and this conveys a lack of interest translating to the feeling by the other participants that you don’t think this is important. This can results in the perception that you lack respect for these people.
Observe. Keep your eyes open and look around. It’s amazing what you see. One of my favourite things to do in meetings is to observe body language, it must be my sociology background. By watching body language, you can usually determine who is engaged, who is skeptical, who is supportive and who feels they have no stake in the business at hand. So you know who you can approach later for help, or who you should lobby.
Try and understand what motivates others. What is behind the behaviour? Why is Jane Wilson always complaining about having to stay late? Does she need recognition for how hard she works? Why is John Smith reluctant to take on a new assignment? Is it because he is afraid of failing?
Reveal only what you are comfortable revealing. It seems funny (funny strange, not funny ha! ha!) to be saying this in the age of reality shows and personal phone calls in public, but you can limit the information you provide. You can say there is a family illness without getting into the who, what and how specifics. Same with problems at school, or repair work on house, car appliances. If someone pushes, you are allowed to say you are just not up to talking about it further at the moment. This about you, so it’s your decision what you want to share.
Be sincere in what you say and do. Congratulate Judy on the promotion, but don’t say she deserves it unless you believe that is true. If you do, Judy will know you don’t mean it, and even the “congratulations” part will be tainted.
Don’t be afraid to show that you’re vulnerable. This is the one that has been most difficult for me, probably because as a woman I feel that demonstrating strong emotion is perceived as weakness. As a result I have always tried to hide or control my anger, sadness, frustration. To be vulnerable is to be human. I’ve learned it’s okay to be human, but I’m still not comfortable with it.
In any role you play, you have to be true to yourself. I wrote a blog post on the life lessons I learned from acting class, and “Pun” a Yale-trained actor who had just finished a run in a Broadway play, made this insightful comment “…it’s important to know who you are and to be true to yourself. This may seem paradoxical since we’re always creating other characters, but you can only do that once you have learned how to be truthful, sometimes the hardest acting lesson of all.”
This is equally true in life. It is a challenge to be truthful, to know who you are and be true to yourself while juggling the multitude of roles we play.
And we can only play each role to the best of our ability by being truthful about who we are.