S1E3 – D: Exploration of Roles in Relational Spaces

In the last section of this episode we go deeper on the nature of Roles, highlighting the commonality across relational spaces and why this becomes a problem for the individual that is constantly challenged to switch roles.

While I was growing up in Mexico, in the beautiful city of Monterrey, it was common to hear about the president of the United States, someone almighty and powerful, that could help the country in so many ways. We have always had an affinity toward our rich neighbours. What I found interesting was that when I moved to Europe, the importance of USA seem to have never diminished by distance but amplified by entertainment, politics and business. Europeans talk so often about USA that at times I believed they knew more about America than their own city. We live in such a globalized world that what happens in America impacts the whole world, we live in such an interconnected network that when a crisis hits America, the whole world suffers. It is not about physical distance but relational connectivity, and in this line of thought I would like to write further on how Roles can affect the whole system, and how is it possible for a single individual to affect the group.

In specific, I’ll address two points.

  • First, since roles imply the performance of a function, we can find similar functions among different relational spaces. We can, and tend to, use similar criteria to judge similar roles, just like we can judge a father with the boss position of a team
  • Second, besides the obvious ability to cause a direct injury to someone we interact with, we as well have the ability to injure a whole relational space. given that we operate in a network of expectations, where everyone is expecting the other to fulfil its part. Failing to deliver group expectations might not only hurt the people with whom we have interactions but create a larger damage, injuring the whole relational space.

This section is not particularly rich in ethical concepts, but it will provide a valuable perspective on how to look at the system in general, which will help us provide a grand summary of the episode by the end of it.

Functional influence in Role Formation – Two core functions

Let us begin with the first point in the agenda. The similarities across roles and social expectations. As already teased, although every role has a unique name within a given space, in many instances roles can be comparable across spaces based on the function they perform. There is a reason why we can compare a company owner with a father, just like there is a reason why we can compare a colleague with a brother. The reason for this similarity in expectations is grounded on the function the role plays within a space. Roles have certain core functions embedded (ex a father is the provider of the family, the doctor is to cure patients or the goalkeeper is to save goals) and I argue that these functions can be clustered into certain categories that are valid across relational spaces.

To give you a nice perspective coming from organizational theory, Dr Meredith Belbin, a pioneer in the identification of team roles in corporations argues in his book “Management teams” that for teams to be successful they need to have 9 specific roles within them. These nine roles were clustered into three big categories, the Social roles, the Thinking roles and the Task-related roles.

I take a similar approach to Dr Belbin and I argue that all relational spaces have two specific clusters of roles, two categories that will be common:

  • Task-oriented, an operational goal-oriented activity, to deliver something, to perform, to hunt, to build something.
  • Admin-oriented, an administrative activity, to make sure that the group operates in a healthy manner, in other words, to coordinate the group, make decisions and manage internal resources

While Dr Belbin argues for thinking, social and task-related roles, I prefer to see it in Task-oriented and Admin-oriented roles. I am not denying Beblin’s classification I just made it more practical for this theory, by combining the social and thinking roles and in the end having two clusters instead of three. I see it in very similar terms to the core functions presented by Scott Keller and Bill Schaninger from the McKinsey group in their famous book “Beyond Performance”. They introduced the idea that companies divide their activities into Performance and Health:

  • Performance is what an enterprise does to deliver to its stakeholders
  • Health, how an organization works together in pursuit of a common goal

They highlight how companies more than double their odds of successfully leading change by applying equal levels of insight and rigour to the “hard” and “soft” elements that matter to the performance and health-related tasks of the company.

So Dr Belbin used “Thinking, Social and Task”, Keller & Schaninger used “Performance and Health”, and I use “Task and Admin”, we are all hermits on different sides of the same island.

I bring this topic because these two core functions will influence the expectations of pretty much any role one plays in any given space. At any given point either one will have more responsibility towards the administration of the space or one will have the focus towards a specific task.

The interesting part comes in the dynamic format of the assignment of expectations, although some of the expectations are fixed by role, in most cases, all roles will have their expectations shifting from admin to task depending on the context. For example:

  • In smaller groups, one may have to do both at the same time, for example, the manager of a small startup of three people. No scaping performing and managing.
  • In larger groups, although there is a division of responsibilities, one will have to take either admin or task-related expectations depending on the situation, for example, the older brother in the family will have to take care of the little brother when the parents are not around.

Implications of the two core functions during roleplaying.

At the end of the day, the two core expectations will be covered in different degrees by all the active stakeholders within a space. We are not going to actively use the core expectations for ethical graduation but there are important implications we can take from this.

Similarities across roles.

Knowing that there are two functional pressures among all relational spaces, it becomes natural to see that there will be always someone looking after the group. Be it the mother, the boss, the president, the big brother or the owner. We have many role labels to describe the same function, and it is only logical that we assign similar expectations. This is the reason why the mother, which administrates the resources of the family can be judged in a similar format to the boss of a team, which administrates the resources of the team. Through this work, we will see how it becomes easy to review ethical dilemmas as not only do we have rough blueprints of the relational spaces, but we have semi-standardized templates of expectations by role types.. we use them all the time, as we move from space to space.

Role priorities

As highlighted earlier, even if the expectations of a role are sort of fixed, the context might influence the actual expectations that apply to a role in a specific situation. A roleplaying agent is constantly challenged with new expectations and it will be challenged in assigning a priority to them. A father at some point wants to be “another one of the gang” and have a friend kind relationship with his son, this might eventual eventually lead to situations where the father will have to choose between the expectations of a friend vs the ones of a father.  Role priorities become vague in practice and we have to carefully digest every situation to understand the core of all the roles and the needs of the space, the worst case would be the doctor that doesn’t want to give bad news or perform his duties because it wants to be the friend as well.

Role expectations ambiguity

It is easy to visualize the core expectations of famous roles such as the father, the boss, the governor but roleplaying happens as well in many random situations, just like stopping and having a conversation with someone in a coffee already creates a relational space. Because of this ability to create roles out of any interaction, in many instances, we end up in role ambiguity, where is not really clear which is our role in the situation. Since we use bias and stereotypes to minimize the vagueness of a role, we tend to end up with different expectations across all the stakeholders; this is the reason why newly formed teams tend to perform very bad in the beginning, nobody knows who is responsible for what!. Role ambiguity will be a problem for ethical judgement and we will have to rely on stereotypes to fill in the blanks to take a decision. As I highlighted at the end of episode two, the DREMSI theory passes judgment based on common social expectations of roles which can only be overwritten if there are explicit agreements in place (which happens often in spaces like the market). This reliance on stereotypes means that ethics will always be imperfect, as stereotypes are constantly changing, situations are constantly adopting and understanding of expectations among all stakeholders is never the same.

How does an actor injure a relational space?

Moving on to the second point in the agenda. Through this thesis we have discussed in much detail how we can injure specific stakeholders during interaction, now I want to focus our attention on a kind of injury that is not entirely obvious, a sort of indirect damage that although we don’t mean harm to anyone in specific, we end up hurting everyone as a consequence of our actions. I want to address the topic of injuries to a relational space, in other words, when we hurt the group as a whole.

Injuring the group is similar to injuring a single individual, it’s just a shift in perspective that we might not be able to “feel”. Ethics as a skill has been tailored for small groups, where one can “feel” that someone is upset or get immediate feedback by the reprobation or complaints from the group. Our societies have increased drastically in size, as such, it is very problematic for one to understand the ramifications of our actions, making it impossible to “feel” or get feedback from the stakeholders affected.

As we handle larger group discussions, such as corporation dilemmas or state-level dilemmas, the intensity of damage to a relational space and subsequently to the member of the space increases. Because of this, I want to stress that the relational space is always a stakeholder during ethical valuation, and although it is somehow intuitive to understand how one can injure it, I want to address three perspectives on this:

Missing one’s responsibilities

First, we can injure the group by failing on our responsibilities. Role expectations help us synchronize our actions with others within a space, and in large groups, we operate in a sort of assembly line, “I do this action because I know you will be doing the other one”. Breaking one’s actions and expectations has the power to disrupt the assembly line, especially If one either plays a critical function by itself (such as a father in a family) or is an important connector within the space (like a keystone animal in an ecosystem, the bees for example, if they fail to act a domino effect happens and the ecosystem collapses).

An interesting observation is that there is a higher sensitivity to injuries if the role the actor plays comes with a sort of exclusivity, a monopoly to some level, in which there is only one actor that can fulfil the function, making it critical for the group that this player never misses to perform.

Purposeful actions

Second, we can injure the group by directly affecting its ability to perform within a relational space. I call these direct attacks due to the direct connection between our actions and the injury. A perfect example is when one shames companies such as Facebook, Google or another tech giant, affecting everyone that is working in that organization. In this regard, we can take one-to-one the ideas of how we injure another party, so these types of injuries are quite obvious in practice.

Association injuries

Third, we can injure the group by attribute association. Purposeful attacks are easy to identify because of their intentionality, on the opposite end there is a type of injury that is not too easy to conceptualize because it happens in a more passive way, it happens when a representative of the group suffers an injury, and due to its connection to the whole, the whole suffers. This is commonly visible in the reputation of the group. Let’s take the case of the CEO of a company that gets involved in a scandal, damaging the reputation of the company he works for and subsequently affecting everyone in the company. In this regard, causing an injury to any role that is highly connected or important for a relational space, will likely cause damage to that group. For example, causing an injury to the mother of a family. As a rule of thumb, the more connected or the more important the more likely is to cause critical injuries to the relational space.

All for one, one for all

All three of these injuries (missing responsibilities, purposeful attacks or association) highlight our co-dependency and to a large degree connect with our instinctive tribalism, in the sense that we naturally defend against any injury that threatens the groups we belong to. “An injury to one of us is an injury to all” seems like a very accurate motto.

Closing the episode, Key takeaways

This episode has been a proper battle to write it, as I progress with the thesis I constantly have to come back to this episode to keep fine-tuning and exploring terminologies and messages. As I imagine that I have introduced too many ideas I want to summarize the key message of this episode:

  • With the purpose to analyse real-life dilemmas, this episode explains critical concepts of understanding reality from a complexity lens, in which we formalize that a relational space is the place where interacting among stakeholders happens and that we can visualize spaces pretty much out of any group interaction. As small as the family with the mother, the son and the father and as large as the Government, the Company and the Citizens.
  • We delved deeper into relational spaces and presented eight conditions that apply to all of them and that are relevant for our understanding of Injuries. Not only from a general understanding of what is an injury (based on the modus operandi) but with an in-detail review of the relationship between roleplaying and identity. Leading us to the unavoidable conclusion that power dynamics apply in each space.
  • Using the first two sections as background, we review that there are multiple ways to injure individuals during roleplaying. On individual level, causing injuries in the lack of recognition, their reputation or hindering their autonomy in relation to others. On group level, injuring the relational space, by either missing one’s responsibilities, purposely attacking the group or injuring a single individual that is highly associated with the group, all this leading to injuries for everyone that is a part of the space.
  • Through the whole episode, I highlight in different ways the dynamism of role expectations, constantly shifting based on the situation and making it common to have different expectations across stakeholders from the space. Given that ethical expectations are constantly changing or miss-aligned, we are always at the risk of causing microaggressions; instead of presenting this as a bad thing, I acknowledge the importance of them as a learning component and hence I diminish its importance from an ethical perspective.

We have covered most of the “complex” stuff about this theory, chopping as many heads of hydra as possible. The beast is still alive but I believe we have discussed most of the complicated concepts and that we are now ready to simply jump into the details of the methodology.

NEXT S1E4 -A: The DREMSI Method, identifying social expectations.

Pride by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

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Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Battle of the Moneybags

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