One day I found myself attempting to fix the Wifi at home… again. I was somehow annoyed with it. ‘Why me again?’… And I have already spent over an hour and the Wifi router was still not working! Oh, and I am always the one whom others at home will come to when any mechanical / electrical related thing is not working. I somehow have the ROLE of ‘technician’. And the ROLE is rather ‘stable’, in the sense that others just pass the ‘fixing task’ to me without trying themselves. We have never discussed and agreed on such ‘role arrangement’ but it just happened. Really how did it happen? Even more interestingly, I pondered what is in me making myself taking up such role despite the occasional sense of frustration of ‘Why me again?’.
On reflection, this actually illustrates the concept of ROLE in the systems-psychodynamics approach. Basically, the idea is that given individuals’ own dynamics and the group’s one, members tend to take up certain (social / psychological) roles in groups.
But wait…. ROLE in groups is a big word which I find often confusing in using it. It could mean:
- Formal role e.g. CEO, CFO
- Procedural role e.g. facilitator, time-keeper, recorder, gatekeepers
Here, I refer to Social / Psychological roles e.g. scapegoat, fool, victim, persecutor, taskmaster. And if I am to put a definition to the concept of ROLE, I would say ‘a role is a pattern of behaviors in relation to other members in the system, and along with other members to further certain purpose of the system’ So, for Social / Psychological roles, the system purpose is often to reduce psychological discomfort for the group. For example, by having someone who always appears to ‘screw up’ i.e. scapegoat, the group can deny / reduce any possible sense of collective failure i.e. ‘It is his failure, not ours’.
Really, how such roles got ‘assigned’ into individuals? My Wifi incident (though also about technical / procedural role) can help illustrate. On my personal side, I am better at such computer stuff and often feel good in being useful in helping others on this. Using the systems-psychodynamics term, I have the valency on this. On the system side, there is simply such need to have things fixed (and probably also psychologically to be ‘taken care’ by dad). So, roles are not only given by the group but also taken up by individuals.
This would be the same for Social / Psychological roles. For example, on personal side, the scapegoat may unconsciously derive comfort in being unfairly blamed as this allows him / her to complain about it and prove his / her worldview that the world is not fair. Perhaps even, after all, there is a nice sense of familiarity as the person has played such role with the older siblings for many years. On the system side, the group needs a reason why it fails the project, in order to avoid the discomfort if acknowledging collective incompetence (and even then the fear of giving and receiving feedback for each members).
But then, so what? How would it be useful in being able to notice and understand the above unconscious processing?
First, such awareness enables one to examine whether the Social / Psychological role taken up is actually useful, especially when one is ‘locked’ into such role. In the above example, the scapegoat can better choose whether to stay in that role. Second, the unconscious group purpose (e.g. to reduce discomfort) may contradict the group stated purpose (e.g. to support each other to develop). By being aware the role situation, a group can choose to avoid scapegoating but instead examine how to improve collective effectiveness by, say, sharing feedback to each other.
Further, there are often role-combination ‘template’ which help more quickly understand group behaviors e.g. persecutor-victim-rescuer like in schools there is always a ‘victim’ who is clumsy, a ‘persecutor’ who bullies and then a ‘rescuer’ who saves the ‘victim’ from trouble. For those in Asia, you may recall in the Japanese cartoon Doraemon as a vivid example – the character ‘大雄’ as the ‘victim’, ‘忌安’ as the ‘persecutor’ and ‘叮当’ as the ‘rescuer’. (Of course, we shall always treat such explanation as hypotheses instead of absolute truth or root cause. See the post What may also be going on?)
Back to the Wifi incident, knowing that I contributed to ‘taking up’ the role, I will probably feel more OK with it next time…… if I choose to continue such role.