Playing a role

The Coalition Cabinet

Meetings! My nightmare (in more ways than one)

I hate chairing meetings!

It’s quite odd when you think about it, because I have no trouble facilitating group workshops — I really enjoy that.

If you analyse the skills required to chair meetings and to facilitate workshops, they are virtually the same. You need to be good at listening and summarising. You need to be good at responding to people and keeping them on track. You need to have a good sense of timing and be able to keep in mind the overall structure and aims.

I can do all of those things when I’m leading a workshop and I feel very comfortable, but when I’m chairing a meeting I feel awkward and nervous and out of control.

The difference in my attitude might be explained by the fact that, even though the skills are the same, the role is different. In my mind, the role of a meeting chair is more formal and more serious than the role of a facilitator. I have two different pictures in my head when I think about the different roles. One is more consistent with my self image than the other — even though the practicalities of the roles are very similar.

When we think about matching ourselves to a career, we often think about how our discrete values or skills align with the rewards and requirements of the job. We are dealing with quite abstract and artificially separated concepts.

A more sophisticated way of understanding a job might be to look at the different distinct roles that you are required to fulfil as you go through your working day.

So for example, as a careers coach/adviser at various times I might be acting like:

  • a motivational speaker
  • a teacher
  • a therapist
  • a journalist
  • a researcher
  • an event organiser
  • a librarian
  • a PR consultant
  • a problem solver
  • a diplomat

…and so on.

Some of those roles fit me better than others. Some come naturally to me and others I have had to grow into. The more time I spend in the roles I enjoy, the happier I am in my job. I also tend to be more productive.

Roles rather than factors?

Rather than looking at individual skills or attributes in isolation, each role encapsulates a unique combination of competencies, attitudes, qualities and behaviours. Roles-based thinking is less reductionist and more holistic than traditional trait-and-factor approaches. Because of this, it seems better suited to modern notions of career development which place more emphasis on fluid identity development and focus on the subjective and contextual aspects of careers. At least that’s what Hans Hoekstra (2010) from the University of Groningen indicates in a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.

He identifies six ‘universal career roles’ that could be used as basic units with which to describe different careers. Each occupation would contain different combinations of these six roles.

He generated the six roles by combining three classes of personal career motives (Distinction, Integration and Structure) that drive people within working environments with two groups of organisational values (Exploitation and Exploration) that represent the required activities for an organisation to survive.

Production, results
Innovation, change
Autonomy, agency, self-assertion
Plans, projects, goals
Problem-solving, knowledge, ideas
Connecteness, belonging, cooperation, sharing
Changing minds, managing impressions
Relationships, improving others, fulfilling needs
Cohesion, meaning, institutional structure
Strategies, decisions
Ideals, values, principles

These six roles, although generated in quite a systematic way, seem fairly arbitrary to me. Why only six elements to construct an identity?

If you want six roles, why not just turn Holland’s RIASEC traits into roles? [Implementer (R), Thinker (I), Creator (A), Helper (S), Persuader (E), Organiser (C)]

Or why not use the MBTI-derived team roles (Coach, Crusader, Explorer, Innovator, Sculptor, Curator, Conductor and Scientist)? That way you get eight.

Or why not use Belbin’s team roles (Plant, Monitor Evaluator, Co-ordinator, Resource Investigator, Implementer, Completer Finisher, Teamworker, Shaper and Specialist)? That gives you nine.

Perhaps the trouble with having so few basic roles is that you fail to distinguish between subtle but important variations in similar roles — for example, the difference between chairperson and facilitator.

Further reading

  • Hoekstra, H. (2010). A career roles model of career development Journal of Vocational Behavior DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2010.09.016
  • Here is an exercise (PDF) which uses the idea of constructing a job out of various roles (40 in total).

P.S. I’m not really here. I wrote this last week. I hope you didn’t think I was writing this while on holiday in New York.


  1. #1 by Jeff Riley on 15 October 2010 - 09:15

    Another muscular post David. I love the way this is about a FORTCOMING publication. A little like shooting the bull before its actually let into the ring.

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