• Marisa Guerin

What's Your "Role Biography?"

Updated: Jul 5, 2019

Marisa Guerin, Ph.D. – September 7, 2018


Academics and consultants Susan Long, John Newton, Jane Chapman, and others have developed the socioanalytic concept of role biography as a powerful avenue for self-knowledge and as a valuable methodology for consultants and coaches. Here is a definition and a distinction:

“Role biography is a term used to describe a biography of the person-in-role as described through the various work roles that they have taken up throughout their lives. This is distinguished from “role history”, which is a history of a particular organisational role, shaped over time by its various incumbents, especially the original or foundation role-holder.
"Both role biography and role history, taken together, give the current role-holder a strong sense of how the past might be unconsciously influencing their current behaviour in role.” *

Let's start with what these writers might mean by "work roles" in our lives. If you have been a reader of my blog posts, you may know something about my role biography by now, even if this is a term that is new for you. Here are some examples of the "work roles" that show up in my personal life biography, with my own self-styled descriptors attached:

  • Dutiful, approval-seeking first-born to my parents

  • Hyper-responsible/bossy big sister to my siblings during childhood

  • Studious, obedient nerd at school

  • Dependable team member

  • Ambivalent leader

  • Automatic helper to a hostess or event organizer in social settings

  • Collaborative consultant in partnership with my clients

Notice that the way I am describing my roles above is NOT by formal title or official duty, but rather by the social and psychological patterns through which I fulfilled expectations in various settings. These are not intentional plans – the way we take up a role arises unconsciously from the interaction between our inner experience, needs, and motives and the external world we live in, especially our social relationships. A dozen different people will "take up" the role of big sister DIFFERENTLY, depending on their family dynamics and their personal psychology.


So one's role biography is as unique as a fingerprint, a window into the way we come to handle what life presents to us. In an actual application of role biography, these social roles that I listed would be the focus of reflection and articulation of how my past experience in life has shaped the ways in which I tend to take up leadership roles at present. It is a dynamic and evolving picture, helpful both to me and to those with whom I might be working.


I have two applications in mind as I highlight role biography in this post – one is team-based, the other is organizational.


Role Biography In Team Development

You may have experienced various activities, exercises, or methods for getting to know team-mates or colleagues in the past. There are dozens! I would like to recommend that you consider a role biography activity for this purpose, especially for those who must collaborate closely and who may or may not have worked together much in the past. Newly-elected leadership teams, council members, and administrative groups fit this description, and others surely do as well. In fact, the narratives that emerge from this process are valuable even for colleagues who believe they know one another fairly well.


Why? Because listening to a colleague telling you the story of how they navigated their family of origin, their school years, their early career experiences through the lens of the social roles they took, or were given, is like having an x-ray of the strengths, vulnerabilities, and hidden features of the complex person you are getting to know. I have participated in role biography sharing sessions that brought poignant candor into the room, sessions that stirred profound respect for the life journeys that lie hidden in the most ordinary-looking of our work-mates.


The result of a reflective exercise in role biography is a personal narrative that gives us new understandings of our distinctive, interior path through life. Shared with team-colleagues or learning partners, a role biography provides powerful insight into what makes each of us tick, and how our past experiences have shaped the organizational leaders or members we are today.


This kind of self-disclosure is deeply relevant, and can be part of a larger effort to understand the unique style and capabilities of the team and its members. At the end of this post, I include a simplified exercise that is based on the concept of role analysis and that might be useful to a leadership group.


Role Biography in Organizational Consulting

From the organizational point of view, role biography can be a valuable component of a more intensive process known as organizational role analysis (ORA). *See reference below for chapter by John Newton).


As a coaching tool or as a leadership and organization effectiveness intervention, ORA is exceptionally productive because it addresses the person-in-context. It's my view that coaching tools are most effective when they are anchored in the person’s specific role and current organizational setting, not context-free. Organizational role analysis might be especially useful to those who primarily work as coaches to leaders, because it facilitates a logical bridge between analysis of the individual and analysis of the person-in-role, which is a socially-constructed reality. This approach significantly increases the face validity of the coaching work and corresponds better to the complexity that leaders must navigate.

What about your story? We each have a biography, and one facet of that story can be told through the roles we have been assigned, have sought out, have created, or have endured.

Role biography reminds us that we are always and unavoidably social beings, shaping and being shaped by those with whom we travel through life.


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Reflection Exercise: My Leadership Story


In silence, think about the following three questions and jot your thoughts down prior to sharing with others.


1. What kinds of informal “roles” did I find myself holding in my family of origin? …in my student years? …in my early career? Why?

(examples: the dutiful one; the studious one; the class clown; Mom’s helper; the rule-bender; the one who always needs help; the group leader; the shy one; the dependable teammate; the dreamer, etc.)


2. How did my own personal leadership style take shape as I lived through these roles in my life story? What seems most authentic to me as a leader?


3. What is my “growing edge” as a leader today?

(Growing edge = something I’m still needing to learn or master)

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*References:

Long, Susan. Socioanalytic Methods: Discovering the Hidden in Organisations and Social Systems. 2013. Karnac Books. (Chapter 10 by John Newton describes Organizational Role Analysis, and Chapter Eleven by Susan Long explains Role Biography.)

Another resource by Susan Long can be accessed via the following link: http://www.academia.edu/10725851/Drawing_from_Role_BIography_in_Organisational_Role_Analysis