Why is the idea of ‘Role’ important?

Dr Brigid Nossal

The Use of Drawing as an Agent of Transformation: a case presentation

This is the third in a series of short blogs about the title of NIODA’s forthcoming Group Relations Conference (GRC), ‘Authority, Role and Distributed Leadership in the Hybrid Workplace: the challenge of transforming experience’ 30 Oct – 3 Nov 2023, online and in Melbourne Australia.
If we work with the idea that whoever we are and whatever we are doing we are always in some kind of role, we can see that the role we think we are in (either consciously or unconsciously) determines how we behave at any given time. Consider these different scenarios:

  • Reading a bedtime story to a small child
  • Pillow talk with your intimate partner
  • Carrying out a performance review with a junior member of staff
  • Pitching a new idea to the Executive Group
  • Returning a faulty product to a store

Across a day or a week, the same person might engage in such a variety of activities, moving from one role to another: parent, lover, boss, employee, customer etc. We all make assumptions about what role we think we are in and what behaviours are appropriate to these roles, but we are not always conscious about these assumptions. For example, a parent or caregiver reading a bedtime story to a small child might assume that in this role one is gentle, speaks softly and is present and engaged. By contrast, in the role of employee pitching a new idea to the Executive Group, the same person might assume the role demands them to be assertive, even a bit aggressive, confident and charismatic. The behaviours are starkly different, but the person is the same.

In my experience of working closely with people in a coaching context, I have learned that we can be inclined to confuse ‘role’ (and particularly work role) with ‘personality’ or personal character traits. I recall working with a CEO who was due to meet the Chair of the Board for a performance and pay review. They wanted to ask for a raise that was long overdue. The client felt paralysed and terrified in anticipation of this meeting. The prospect raised old issues of self-worth they had carried into adulthood due to an overbearing parent who often undermined them. I invited them to take themselves and their personal history out of the equation and to consider what they thought the role of CEO of this organisation deserved to be paid in order to attract and retain the right person? This was one of those moments of transforming experience. For this client, the answers to these questions were clear and they were able to quickly shift from the unconscious role of child to the conscious role of highly competent CEO. The behaviours appropriate to the role of CEO were clear and the client was able to negotiate the raise in an uncomplicated and assertive way. Asking ourselves and others the questions, what role are you in now and what are the behaviours appropriate to that role can free us up to make different choices about how we inhabit the roles we take up and, how we shape these roles.

By definition, roles always exist in relation to other roles: parent to child; lover to lover; employee to colleague, team or boss; leader to follower; customer to provider – even hermit to the rest of the community. In the workplace, every role is in some kind of interdependent relatedness and relationships with other roles and the nature and quality of these are arguably the most important determinants of organisational efficiency, effectiveness and health. Thus, being clear about one’s role, what is required of it, what behaviours are appropriate to it, how it is connected to and impacts other roles, and how it affects us are amongst some of the most vital considerations. In the temporary learning organisation of the GRC, there are many opportunities to explore these things for the individual, within a group, as between groups and within the GRC as a whole.

The Primary Task of this GRC is:

“With a spirit of enquiry, to explore and study the exercise of authority and leadership in the taking up of roles through the interpersonal, intergroup and institutional relations that develop within the conference as an organisation in its wider context”.

By studying roles in the different events of the GRC, members can explore and experiment with the roles that they either find themselves in or have claimed for themselves. These roles may be explicitly or unconsciously chosen or given. Such roles are not pre-determined by conference staff, rather, they are invented and co-created in the experience of the conference. For example, when we stop to examine and ask ourselves this question, ‘what role am I in now?’ we might discover that wittingly or unwittingly, we have become the spokesperson for the group, seemingly with the role to do the talking on behalf of the group. The roles we take up can also be more subtle, and even unconscious. As an example, a member might find themselves crying and feeling a lot of emotion. Under examination, it becomes possible to hypothesise that they have been unconsciously chosen by the group to take up the role of ‘the emotional one’, doing this work on behalf of the group. On reflection, this member might realise that this also happens at work. Once discovered, it becomes possible to consider other role options and even test them out during the five days of the GRC.

Through this deep investigation into the roles we find ourselves and others in, it becomes possible to make sense of group and organisational dynamics by asking such questions as: ‘what is the purpose of these roles?; ‘do these roles serve or work against the task we are trying to do?’; ‘what roles would best serve the task of this group?’ and ‘who is best placed to fill them?’. When roles are under-examined in organisations this can lead to all manner of problems and inefficiencies. For example, where the boundaries and task of roles held by different people are not clear enough, it can result in what look like interpersonal conflict, but what is in fact role confusion or role clashes. Under-examined roles can lead to role overload and impossible roles that lead to stress and burnout. So, by gaining skills in examining roles in the GRC and gaining insights into the roles we seem habitually to find ourselves in, a vast array of new choices and resources are opened up that we can apply to our back-at-work context.

Beyond this, as we face into global environmental and ethical challenges, this exploration of role also invites the question, ‘how do we want to show up and what role/s are we prepared to take up, both inside and beyond organisational settings?’

These are the reasons why and how role, as a unit of study within the GRC, is so important.

I hope that you will consider joining us. Scroll to read the other blogs, or learn more here.

Dr Brigid Nossal

August 2023

Why is the idea of ‘Role’ important?

ps NIODA’s forthcoming Group Relations Conference is 30 October – 3 November 2023. This is a hybrid event both onsite in Melbourne and live interactive online

What is a Group Relations Conference (GRC) and why is it important?

What is the big deal
about Authority?

Why is the idea of 'Role' important?

Distributed leadership - are we up for it?

Why is the idea of ‘Role’ important?

The Use of Drawing as an Agent of Transformation: a case presentation

Dr Brigid Nossal

NIODA Group Relations Conference Director

Brigid is a co-founder and Director at NIODA. She combines academic teaching, research and supervision with consulting to organisations. For the past 20 years, systems psychodynamics and Group Relations Conferences have been central to her work. She has worked on many GRCs in Australia, the UK, China and India. Brigid directed the 2017 NIODA GRC on the theme, Leadership, Authority and Organisation: exploring creative disruption. Brigid is also a member of GRA and ISPSO.


The National Institute of Organisation Dynamics Australia (NIODA) offers internationally renowned post-graduate education and research in organisation dynamics, and decades of experience consulting with Australian organisations. 

The study of organisation dynamics brings together socio-technical and psychoanalytic disciplines to explore the unconscious dynamics that exist in every group, team or organisation. Learning more about these theories, and reflecting on the experience of them, can support leaders and managers to unlock great potential in their organisations, tackling issues through a whole new light.

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