387. Roles

Parents, teachers, children, and other people often get cast in roles they’re expected to play. They do, say, or write something that impresses other people, either because they do it so well or just because at least they DO it. It may or may not astound people, but at least it impresses them enough to make them create a role for the perpetrator. And from then on, everyone knows who is supposed to plan the treasure hunt for the birthday party, make the toast at the retirement party, or whatever. Someone else could do it, but not with that special flair.
Roles like that can be very flattering, but they can also be limiting and oppressive. If you’re the one who traditionally plans the office party, maybe you enjoy doing it for two or three years. But then you tell everybody you’re tired of doing it. “But you’re so GOOD at it,” they all say. “No one could ever plan it as well as you do.” And so maybe you plan it one more time. But your heart isn’t really
in it. Maybe you secretly hope people will become disenchanted with your “expertise,” and someone else will take over next year. But no one comes forward. You’ve got a role.
As an occasional organizer of adults, I try to make sure no one stays in any role any longer than she/he feels right about it. Pass It On!, the magazine I edit, has a great staff of talented volunteers, and the magazine keeps improving. But once in a while, someone decides that he/she has burnt out. Enough is enough. When that happens, I do my best to balance expressing appreciation for what the volunteer has done and acceptance of the decision to stop doing it. I don’t want to ever be thought of as indispensible, and I don’t think she/he does, either. The myth of indispensibility can be an awful tyrant.
Sometimes, the role problem has a different twist. People sometimes cling with all their might to the roles they have. They attach their self-esteem to those roles, and feel threatened if anyone suggests that it’s time to give someone else a chance: “Wasn’t I doing it well enough? Tell me what I was doing wrong, and I’ll try to do it better.” Change can be unsettling for everyone involved.
But I think systems work better when there’s role flexibility. Tasks are accomplished well by those who are experienced, but they’re also accomplished well by those who have fresh ideas. It can be good for the veterans to be available as consultants, but that assumes that those veterans have let go of their roles enough to allow room for the novices’ ideas.
Some of my articles get right to the point, but this one may leave you wondering, what is he referring to? Does he think I should let someone else balance the checkbook? Just because I made that one mistake? Don’t worry. I didn’t mean you. I know you like to be in charge of the checkbook, and you do it very well. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that you should be replaced.

Comments are closed.