Sarah has been appointed as the new managing partner in a niche commercial law firm. The previous senior partner, Charles, was dismissed for harassment of a female senior associate a year earlier. Charles was popular with the partners in the firm but not the junior associates. Sarah calls a meeting of the other lawyers to discuss a new business strategy. During the discussion, Raheem, a senior associate, volunteers several novel ideas to break into new markets and is told by the partners to research market opportunities further. Ingrid, another senior associate, sees a fundamental problem with Raheem’s ideas but stays quiet. At the end of the meeting Sarah asks everyone to vote on her new strategy but the other partners are against her. She leaves the meeting despondent, but finds time to check in on Richard, a junior lawyer, whose father recently passed away. One of the reasons Sarah was made managing partner is because she is known to have a certain way with people.
That evening, as she sips her habitual glass of wine, Sarah complains to her partner that the future of the firm is at risk because she is not up to the job. Raheem starts to put in late nights so that he has time to carry out the work he has to do on marketing in addition to his own work. Ingrid becomes increasingly anxious but continues to say nothing.
At first glance you might think that nothing untoward is happening here. But if the relationship dynamics within this firm are not addressed, the firm is likely to seriously underperform, resentment will grow, and stagnation will set in.
We can better understand the dynamics at play by considering the roles that each person is playing. Each of them have an outer role – their job description – managing partner, senior associate and so on. But beyond that, there are other roles in play which lie beyond the job descriptions each person has.
First of all, there are inner roles – the roles that are supporting the emotional functioning of the relationships within the firm. For example, Sarah is a nurturer, providing support for Richard in his grief. Raheem is a visionary, generating ideas for the firm. Neither of these roles falls within their job description, but they perform these functions willingly, and in doing so they fulfill a need within the relationship system of the firm. The firm relies on them to do this job so that the organisation as a whole can function.
Then there are secret roles. These reflect internal aspects of each person, and are often hidden. Ingrid has her shy self, which lacks the confidence to speak up when something troubles her. Sarah has her hero self that believes the fate of the firm rests on her shoulders. Neither is particularly aware of their secret selves, although Ingrid knows she often feels anxious when she hears things she disagrees with at work, and Sarah knows that since taking on her new position, her stress levels have risen sharply.
Then there are ghost roles. One ghost in this firm is Charles, the former managing partner. His ghost haunts the meeting by causing opposition to Sarah’s ideas from the other partners who were fond of Charles and miss his presence. Another ghost is the harassment investigation that led to his dismissal. Although Ingrid was not the victim of the harassment, she and other female members of staff have felt vulnerable to reprisals after Charles’s departure, and this has contributed to her reticence within the firm.
Why understanding roles is essential?
Understanding the roles in play in organisations, and the dynamics they create, gives new and resourceful insights into the relationships in the firm. With this understanding, it is possible to identify strengths and weaknesses within relationships, and to introduce changes that optimise the performance of the firm as a whole. Systemic coaching can be used to reveal and work with hidden dynamics of these roles.
For example, recognising Charles’s ghost role gives the insight that Sarah will struggle to establish her position as managing partner for as long as Charles’s contribution to the firm, his popularity, and the sense of loss among the partners goes unacknowledged. It may be challenging for Charles to be recognised in this way given the circumstances of his departure, but without it, his ghost will continue to haunt the relationships within the firm and undermine the effectiveness of the partners. On a personal level, Sarah will struggle to find her place as managing partner while she remains unaware of the burden that her inner hero places upon her. She will continue to suffer from stress, and is likely to find it hard to display other leadership behaviour, such as delegation and vulnerability.
Raheem has much to contribute to the firm with his ideas, but left unchecked he risks burn out because neither he nor his colleagues have honoured the boundaries around his core role as a lawyer. If he or those around him could recognise that he has stepped beyond his core role, the firm would see the need for specialist outside help to support its marketing strategy. As things stand, since he has agreed to work on marketing, the firm relies upon him to deliver. He will start to feel under increased pressure, and if he fails to deliver, his standing in the firm may go down. He may come to resent his work – not because he resents being a lawyer, but because he finds his role at the firm too demanding.
Ingrid would benefit from personal work to resolve her shyness, which is linked to her anxiety. If she does not do this, she risks not fulfilling her full potential. Beyond that, the firm needs to create a safe psychological environment for its employees following the harassment allegations against Charles. Without that, the firm is unlikely to flourish fully, and other grievances may fester and undermine the relationships in the firm. People may start leaving and no one will truly understand why.
Simply speaking, understanding and revealing the layers of roles in operation within an organization enables members of the organization to engage in healthier, more productive relationships.
Remember: you are not your role
One last point: do not confuse yourself with your role, and do not confuse your colleague with their role. The two are quite different. Roles are simply places within a relationship system that reflect needs within a system. They are not the same as the people who from time to time fill the place. When one person leaves, another one fills the vacant role.
Why is this important? It is important because when people become confused with a role, there is an expectation that they will – or must – be able to perform everything which that role requires. This is often quite unrealistic. In contrast, when we see roles as needs of the organization, we can more easily understand what resources are needed to meet those needs. The resources may include more than one person, outside assistance, additional training and so on. Employee wellbeing and performance can be seriously compromised when people and roles are confused.
The authors are founding partners of the Libra Partnership (email@example.com) that provides coaching and training to law firms, lawyers and the Bar, as well as other organisations.