Have you seen any of the new BBC series on TV called “Life’s Too Short”; a comedy written by Ricky Gervais, about a ‘dwarf’ acting agency? Historically, people with restricted growth have been seen as people of interest – in the freak circus. In this series, the protagonist is looking to act, play a role that does not involve pantomime characters or some kind of mythical creatures, like pixies, elves or leprechauns.
As I watched one episode, it got me thinking about the workplace; people fulfilling roles created by other people or perhaps even themselves. I thought it might be interesting to catalogue some examples I have come across.
- I recently spoke with a newly appointed manager in a company that has an embedded culture of abrasive (certainly over-assertive) management. This person has a softer style, is conciliatory and inclusive – she is concerned as to whether she can possibly succeed in such an environment. Her manager expects her to push her team hard and “let them really know who is boss”. She is sure she will be viewed as being too soft and possibly ineffective and questioned me how she could develop a more aggressive style.
- A small construction company I know has just taken on a new apprentice. It is their practice to ensure that younger staff members learn to take teasing and verbal abuse. “It hardens them to the rigours of the job”, I was told. The teenage worker is expected to take whatever comes and not answer or fight back. He has been set up as a victim in a cruel game in his new work place, where the other more experienced workers see it as a bit of fun – after all they all went through it. This young man is quite tough and has always been a strong personality and ready to fight back. How will he survive in a temporary role as the victim?
- Some time ago I was invited into an engineering company. They had recently taken on their first woman among a team of sixteen male toolmakers. The company had spent money building a new toilet area for women and also asked their new recruit if she had any other specific requirements; it appeared that they had done a great job. What they had not accounted for was her objection to naked women on calendars on the walls of the staff canteen. Should she accept this as a part of the engineering profession? Just because she had joined a hitherto male dominated environment, should she pretend it is ok and act like a man in order to be accepted?
We all have roles we play at work. Sometimes they are of our own creation whilst at other times they are foisted upon us. How authentic can we be in either case, when we are role-playing? I have written before about authenticity – to me this is the starting point of a successful employment. Being true to yourself and to others is a good foundation to building strong relationships in the workplace.
So if you find yourself playing a role at work that is not a true reflection of yourself, I wonder if, in the long run, it would be wise to find a way out – not of the employment (it’s not a good time to do that) but out of the role. Leave those type games for the actors.