At rehearsal of Oliver Twist (Broadway, ca 1912). Bain News Service via Library of Congress.

Job Role (Social Role) Defines Your Behaviour: Wilfred Brown & Elliott Jaques

Forrest ChristianOrganizations, Theory 1 Comment

Behavior is as much defined and limited by the role that a work inhabits as his personality and the quality of his relationships within the company. Lord Wilfred Brown, the Managing Director of Glacier Metal Company for decades and a major management thinker in his own right, was insistent on this point. You can even take this farther than he did: the social role you inhabit (or are forced into) will make you behave in certain ways. This may comes as shock if you’re like most Westerners and see the world entirely through the lens of personal responsibility and psychology.

I thought about this when I recently reviewed a video promo that I put together for the Glacier Management Institute’s (GMI) Explorations In Management film series. My promo isn’t that great (bad editing) but it gets a couple of key ideas across, including the idea that behavior is defined by your job role.

It’s worth thinking about, especially in light of my discussion last time on social capital, trust and requisite organizations.

Social roles are powerful in that the shape and define reality. You can espouse all types of things, but see yourself behaving counter to your beliefs and consistent with the social role you adopt or are shoved into. Social roles like “husband”, “mother”, and “boss” have powerful preconceptions behind them. You end up feeling like you are merely a channel for the role to live through, or that your life is scripted for you.

Brown may be seem to be saying alone among the CEO Writers, but the idea is certainly not his. Shakespeare’s Jaques — not to be confused with Elliott Jaques — tells us:

All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.

The Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman developed the sociological dramaturgy, the idea that we are actors who co-create reality through wearing of different social roles, that our behaviours are defined together in context. The roles and scripts are defined socially, even when they are not formal roles. The (See The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.) Now that I’m writing this, I see that I need to return to Goffman because there is so much to be mined here, and Michael Kearl would be pleased.

Brown says that your role at work has a tremendous affect on behaviour. When roles are crushing because they don’t fit, or because the tripartite “Employee, Manager, Manager-Once-Removed” is setup wrong without Real Bosses, people will behave in ways that is distrustful. When you change this, you will transform the behaviour. Sending people to training is nice but it’s a waste of time when you can get more bang from your buck by changing the social roles and organization. It’s not that you shouldn’t worry about your personality and how it affects your work. It’s that until you get the social structure fitting the natural way it should, you are fighting against gale force winds.

When you change the social roles to a natural fit, people’s behaviours will change. Even over the weekend.

Don’t believe me?

I actually saw this work on an outsourcing project I consulted to a decade ago. It was clear, I was there, and I still find it hard to believe. A big IT outsourcing company (“OSCo”) had taken over the IT at a small investment bank (“SIB”. That means that people who used to be employees of SIB suddenly became employees of OSCo. I was working on rationalizing the IT processes. Creating them out of thin air half the time, because that’s how bad SIB’s internal IT processes had been. I was surprised that work ever got done. And I suppose that’s why OSCo got the contract: work didn’t get done.

There people were some of the most backstabbing, gossiping, spiteful people I’ve ever worked with. They weren’t the champs, but they came close.

Then, after the two guys I worked for and I had rationalized things, reorganized the IT function — including demoting an older manager but keeping his pay the same — and started enforcing some process following, suddenly these same people were pleasant, outgoing, hardworking team-players.

Behaviour changed because the roles changed.

Ian MacDonald told me that when he and others were reorganizing Rio Tinto’s New Zealand Aluminium Smelter, the local social services reported a decline in domestic violence complaints of 30%.

Yes, that’s a thirty percent drop in domestic violence. Just by changing the social roles and structures.

Which raises the point that most hidden high potentials are really bad at proper role (presentation of self) during the theater of work. There are good reasons for this and its worth exploring in the newsletter and the workgroup.

At rehearsal of Oliver Twist (Broadway, ca 1912). Bain News Service via Library of Congress.

Comments 1

  1. I am inclined to assert, after many years contemplating the subject, that an organization simply will not be effective until it gets its structure right and has the right people in the right roles.

    A lot of attention has been focused on systems and the behavioural effects of functional and dysfunctional systems on organization. The simple fact is we can apply a significant amount of attention toward optimizing an organization’s systems and all of that effort becomes wasted if we do not get structure and people right.

    I might go on to contemplate that the most important factor is not even so much structural design but getting the right leader into the top role in the organization. Put the right individual there and he or she will ensure that the structural architecture is correct, subordinate roles are defined and occupied with the right people, and that once this is in place the supporting systems and managerial practices facilitate full organizational effectiveness and optimal work.

    My friend and colleague Mark Cutifani, CEO Anglogold Ashanti, is an example we can point at. At an earlier time he advocated that we need to elevate the discussion to a level of simplicity, a concept that at the time seemed out of order to me, however in terms of RO I don’t believe it is any more difficult than ensuring that a capable CEO is seated in the role. From there everything else can follow. Absent capable leadership all efforts are virtually pointless.

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