I am reminded of my friend, Arvind, who used to act regularly in plays. He was very passionate about the different aspects of theater. Incidentally, it was from Arvind that I learned how to become successful in a new role.
Roles in Drama
During Dussehra (the Hindu festival), Arvind used to land a role in Ramlila, the dramatic folk enactment based on the epic, Ramayana.
Every year, he played a different role. He began playing several junior characters in the beginning before he got to play the principal ones. He played Hanuman, the monkey-god, and in the following year, he played Lakshman, Rama’s brother. In one particular year, he got to play the character of Ravana, the demon. He could never play Rama – a local politician’s son always played this character.
The Arvind I knew was a happy-go-lucky chap with modest ambition. He had his principles and views, but he never got into arguments on such matters. Scared of life’s responsibilities that were being thrust upon him at a young age due to his father’s illness, he used to express his fears to me. There was no one to guide him at that time.
However, when he played Hanuman, the audience saw him as an embodiment of courage. He challenged the characters on the opposite side with his sheer might and demeanor. Only I, sitting in the audience, knew how scared he was with life.
When he played Lakshman, he was an epitome of obedience. He was at the beck and call of Rama & Sita. However, the Arvind I knew as a friend, was not the obedient type. Although he was scared of life, he was defiant on matters where he didn’t agree. He would not budge an inch.
When Arvind played Ravana, he was evil personified. The way he tricked Sita and abducted her and the way he prepared to fight Rama’s army, we could spot the audience silently praying for Ravana’s end. However, Arvind was a good human being. Although he had strong individual views, he would never harbor an evil thought.
Arvind enjoyed playing all the roles. He could keep himself aside and slip into his drama characters so effortlessly. Looking at each of the characters, the people in the audience would imagine that he was playing his natural self.
Over the years, I lost touch with him.
The Role and the Role-holder
Thanks to Arvind, I learned pretty early in life, the difference between the role-holder and the role. The Arvind I knew (role-holder) was different from the characters he played.
In Life too, we get to play different roles – sibling, spouse, parent, neighbor, employee, boss, citizen and the like. We perform several roles simultaneously and obviously, our roles change based on our station in life.
In some of these roles, we can align ‘who we are’ (role-holder) and ‘what the role is’ (role). In such situations, we play the role with a flourish. We enjoy what we do and feel fulfilled at the end of the day.
However, there are situations when we experience alignment issues between the role-holder and the role. In a career, the organization expects us to always adapt to the role, irrespective of who we are. This expectation is wishful thinking.
Role & Role-holder conflict at work
In this context, I recall a work situation.
We had a Program Management team where work used to flow into this team based on the demands of the internal customers. The Program Management team would conduct a detailed study of the requirements, estimate the effort, set up timelines and go back to the requestor. It was an influential role because the Program Management team enjoyed the discretion to say yes or no and if they were to say yes, under what conditions.
Consequent to some resizing in the team, a new Head joined to make the team more external-facing. He introduced a new paradigm. The team would now proactively work with prospective customers and scout for work. They were to market themselves and work with potential customers to ‘invent’ demand and ‘create’ work for themselves.
This new paradigm was diametrically opposite to what prevailed earlier.
In the changed circumstances, the customer was in the driver’s seat and the Program Management team vied for the customer’s attention. The whole equation had flipped.
When I was speaking with the new Head of the Program Management team, I gathered that many of the tenured team members were offering significant resistance to this new paradigm. Most of them felt that it was not appropriate for their professional stature to scout for work and wait outside the customer’s door to be called in. They felt this new approach was beneath them.
Over the next few weeks and months, I saw the team members leave. Some chose other roles within the organization while others quit the company. New members came fresh into the new paradigm, and the new team began operating.
Role understanding and Role acceptance
I have always held that there is a significant difference between Role Understanding and Role Acceptance. Therefore, just because one understands the role does not mean one accepts it.
Role Understanding is understanding the language of the role description while Role Acceptance is the internal buy-in. The secret of how to become successful in a new role is hidden in this alignment.
Leaders, this is critical information for us. We frequently ask questions around ‘understanding’ of the role but rarely do we probe the ‘acceptance’ angle.
I am listing four questions each that Leaders could pose to gauge ‘understanding’ and ‘acceptance’:
4 open-ended questions that probe ‘understanding’:
- Could you please explain this new role to me?
- Could you fast forward to the end of the year and explain to me what steps you took in this role to reach the end of the year?
- What do you think are the Measures of Success for this role? Or how will you evaluate the success of this role?
- In your view, what are the risks in this role that could impact your success?
Carefully listening to the responses, Leaders can make appropriate corrections to the ‘understanding’.
4 open-ended questions that probe ‘acceptance’:
- Which of your strengths would you be able to leverage in this role?
- Which of your improvement areas could adversely impact the role? Are you concerned?
- What parts of this role excite you?
- On your own, would you have requested for this role?
Carefully listen to the responses and gauge the level of ‘acceptance’. If the ‘acceptance’ level is high, you can bet that the person knows how to become successful. Conversely, if you feel ‘acceptance’ is low, revisit the decision of assigning the role.
Organizational Change and Roles
Organizational Change affects teams. Each member responds to Change differently. In a continuum, a role has to be understood, accepted and demonstrated. Role demonstration is performance. Therefore, unless the role is understood and accepted, performance will not happen.
Therefore, if someone’s performance has suddenly dipped after an organizational Change, among other things, I have always made it a point to check if there is a gap between Role Understanding and Role Acceptance. We can probe issues around underperformance once these two elements are aligned.
Instead of considering it as a pure performance issue, it is crucial to probe if there is a gap between the understanding and the buy-in. There could be a coaching opportunity on how to become successful.
Most importantly, we know that not everyone can seamlessly slip into, and effectively play, a new role every time.
In conclusion, not everyone can be Arvind in real life.
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