Thoughts on Roles

Ever notice how our society seems to hate the idea of roles? I didn’t know that I had a struggle with roles until just recently, but suddenly, while trying to explain the concept to an older friend of mine, whom I would have assumed understood the idea better than I would, I realized that everything in life has to do more with roles and position than something intrinsic.

So I have a job right? It’s a middle management job, which sometimes means I have the burden of assuming a lot of responsibility for things, sometimes means I have the luxury of shoving the burden onto others, and most of the time means I’m squished in the middle trying to figure out a solution that works for everyone. That’s just the game. Some people tell me what to do, and I tell other people what to do. Some people advise me, while others command me. Some people gotta do what I say, and others can tell me to mind my own business. But if I take a second to think about it, every part of my day hinges on the fact that there are roles cut out for everyone in the office and in the field, that we have to fulfill. Many times these roles reflect certain abilities within different individuals that don’t exists in the others, but many times any given person could do any of the other persons’ jobs if they had to. I like that fact because it means if someone is sick or dies or whatever, others can fill in, but for the most part we have to maintain our roles.

The roles are where the authority lies, not in the person. Certainly different personality types evoke different amounts of respect from others. And different skill sets make some more reliable in some roles than others. That’s why we tend to fall into the roles we do, but that’s not the roles themselves. I might be a great mechanic and so people will respect me and my opinion when it comes to the mechanical, but if the head mechanic gives an order, in the realm of the environment we are all in at the time (the company) we follow the head mechanic’s lead and not mine, even if he’s not necessarily as skilled as I am. Now if he’s not as skilled as I am, it’s within my role to help and suggest some things, and it’s within his role to take into consideration my help, but in the end it’s his word that goes, not mine. And it’s important to note that this is because of the role and title he bares and not necessarily something about his person. A year from now I might be promoted to head mechanic and he might be in a completely different department. Then it’s my role to  lead in that area, and not his anymore.

We see this everywhere. There are roles on paper and there are roles that go unspoken, but everyone knows what they are, even if we don’t like them. A popular topic of my generation is whether or not there are gender roles. Is it a man’s job to do these set of things and not this other set of things because of some unwritten rule book somewhere, or because God says, or simply because biology and circumstance has conditioned us to do them.

We see it in public life. One person feels that it is his duty as a celebrity, and therefore as someone who has a considerable amount of influence, to fulfill that role by being politically outspoken or a philanthropist. Another might argue that for the precise reason that he is a celebrity, that it is not within his role in society to speak on political matters, and that it is only for professional politicians and the common man to do so. That somehow ones celebrity status disqualifies him from voicing his opinion. This view is often supported by those proporting that a celebrity couldn’t possibly ever know anything about politics. But could this be true. Is it any more likely that the common man on the street would know anything more or less about world affairs than a celebrity simply by the nature of being a celebrity. Certainly not. The reason we can still hold a view about the propriety of a celebrity speaking out or not is because we have a view about the role of a celebrity in society. Even the president himself plays a role that may or may not have much to do with his intrinsic abilities at all. When George Bush was President of the United States, his word went. Now years after he’s left the White House, his word is heeded certainly, but it’s not the law of the land anymore. He couldn’t sign an exective order into existence anymore than I could. What changed? Did he suddenly lose power in his voice? Well many would argue his voice wasn’t ever strong. The obvious difference is that his role has changed. There was never any inherent authority residing inside George Bush, much like there isn’t any inherent authority inside President Obama. The difference is that at different times in their lives they held the office of the President. The office or role is where the authority lies, and not with the person.

I had a conversation about this with a coworker of mine and they seemed to have trouble with the concept. I think because the “roles” is such a dirty word these days, that it’s hard for us to accept roles, even in concept form. Another coworker of our changed positions. His previous position had a certain set of authorities that came with it, and there were certain people he reported to, and others from whom he could require reports. Now with his new position, many of those authorities either increased or diminished, and those who he reported to changed. In the conversation my coworker told me it seemed disrespectful to the person to not treat them according to their previous role. I told her that it was perfectly fine to now do things consistent with the new role. I’m not sure if it made sense to her because she kept thinking that the different authorities are inherent in the person instead of the position.

Work is an easy example to use because roles are written down, and in theory, are more clear. Someone is the CEO. Someone is the secretary. Someone is a manager. Someone is a field hand. Someone is a janitor. We are all familiar with these names of positions, and we are also familiar with the concept that these are simply roles being filled, but that these people aren’t identified in their person as these positions. Sure someone may have characteristics that make one better at filling the role of CEO than another person, and we may even say they are a “born CEO” but we still understand there is nothing intrinsic in the person that makes them a CEO. Also we understand the idea that you may start in a company in one position, carrying out certain duties, and then be promoted to do other duties. Compensation reflects this too. We do say that a man is worth x amount of dollars. But that is talking about his net worth, that is how much, if he sold everything he owns, including property and shares and the like, would he make. That’s a different concept. But there is nothing about a person that simply makes him worth $50k a year and another worth $150k a year. All that is based on a job that needs to get done by a certain role. If you’re the guy filling that role right now, you make $50k. Tomorrow you could be promoted to fill that other role and now make $150k. And still the next day you could be fired, and therefore not filling any role for that company, so you make $0. Your inherent value didn’t change at all from day one to day three. The money, just like authority, and even things like the dirty word…..submission, all come from the role, not the person.

There’s more on that. Especially since I brought up the S word. That’s the funny thing about roles. Roles do seem to be inherent in everything we do in life. Mainly because they are inherent in relationships, and there isn’t much in life that doesn’t have to do with some sort of relationship. But that’s for another time.


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