Roles in Groups

This article has been submitted for possible publication in Communities magazine, available from Fellowship for Intentional Community, RR 1 Box 156, Rutledge, MO 63563; 660-883-5545;;


by Tree Bressen


They are happening within us and around us all the time, but we’re not usually thinking about it. Most of the time we are so caught up in them, we’re no more aware of them than we are of breathing. Just like slowing down to be present with our breathing can bring more awareness and more peace into our lives, taking time to notice what roles we and the people around us in community are playing can bring more awareness and more peace into our individual lives and the lives of the groups we live in.

Most people associate the word “roles” with characters in a stage production. But what i mean here are the parts we play in the drama of our lives, the multiple parts we each play all the time.

Oftentimes when we are frustrated with another community member we’ll say something like, “They are always so difficult (or temperamental or uptight or passive-aggressive or . . .).” In that moment we are taking the vast complexity of another person and reducing them down to one way of being. We forget that someone who plays a particular role in one group can play the opposite role in another. For example, in your role as community accountant you might be seen as linear and rational, but when you go home to a family gathering your relatives might joke about you being new agey or flaky because you choose an alternative lifestyle.

Because of our American training to individualize everything, we tend to interpret someone’s actions as due to their personality. We may make sense of their behavior by saying it’s because they are a particular type on the Myers-Briggs test, or the enneagram, or any other number of personality categorization systems.

But the reality is that roles emerge at the intersection of individuality and groupness. Roles are an expression of individual psychology, yes, but they are equally an expression of a group’s culture, needs and timing. They are a mesh between the various identities we carry in ourselves, and the labels others place on us, and the social structures we all move in such as race, age, and mental health practice (you get points for being a psychologist, but not for consulting one!).

If you interpret someone’s behavior as solely an expression of who that person is—their personality—without taking into account the context, then you have very few options if you don’t like that behavior: you can put up with it, you can leave, you can try to get them to leave, or you can hope they change (but how likely is that?).

If you enlarge your perspective to notice and work with the group aspects of the role someone is in, suddenly you have more options. You might temporarily occupy someone else’s role, to see what it’s like and to shift the group energy (say, by trading viewpoints during a controversial meeting, each person spending 20 minutes arguing for the “other” side). You can give that person support for their role so that they won’t have to hold it so strongly (for example, assigning a second detail-oriented person, perhaps one with stronger communication skills, to work on the same committee). You can share your awareness of the co-created group dynamics with others so that everyone has an opportunity to create shift. The appropriate response will vary according to the situation, but the key is that having more awareness of roles and learning to work with them takes some of the pressure off, removes interpersonal blame, and allows for more paths to harmony.

Roles are co-created by everyone involved, and this is all the more important to recognize during sticky situations. When you find yourself feeling frustrated with a particular community member, how often do you reflect on how you and others are co-creating the troubling dynamic?

Some years back, my co-op had a particularly “difficult person” as a resident. She would get upset and yell, she would say one thing and soon after the opposite, she complained about how unsupported she felt here after we’d put more effort into helping her out than any other member ever required, and so on. She complained of constant victimization, while being higher impact than anyone else. These behaviors went on for some months, until at some point other members finally had enough, and they started being up front with her, speaking kindly but openly of the impact she was having on them, instead of being “nice” and shielding her from the effects. Lo and behold, within a few days she gave notice to move out. My housemates had changed her role, refusing to treat her as a victim any longer.

While at times it might be appropriate for someone to move on, you need to be careful about assuming that will solve your problems. In the popular Communities magazine article “Community Member as Lightning Rod” (Spring 2000, #106), Harvey Baker pointed out that once the supposed “problem person” backs off or leaves, typically someone else emerges as the new problem person.

That’s because roles are flexible. If the group is needing a scapegoat, they will surely find one. And if members are disowning their own shadow sides, projecting their experiences of anger, sadness, or victimization onto another person, then these kinds of problems will keep emerging, until people are ready to take on being fully humyn and owning all the parts of themselves. That doesn’t have to mean everyone yelling and acting out; it can be as simple as saying out loud to the group, “I’ve realized i am feeling really angry about this, and i want to say why.”

And there are positive aspects of flexibility too, such as when a key member leaves a community and others step up to take initiative and fill in the work.

All of the roles have value. Someone in the community is going to be the most detail-oriented person, and someone is going to be the rough-and-ready, let’s-get-it-done-already type. Someone is going to be comfortable with taking big risks, and someone else is going to be cautious. Someone is going to need structure to feel safe, and someone is going to need freedom to feel safe. The most effective groups find ways to use this diversity constructively, creating a middle way of balance (and a sense of timing and rhythm) that is healthier for the group’s long-term well-being than either extreme would be.

Another useful principle in understanding how roles operate is “salience.” Salience is the idea that we tend to identify with whichever role is under the most stress at a given time. At a community meeting, we might think we are speaking to the identity part that we all share in common as members of that community; but if another identity piece is the one under stress for a particular listener, then that’s where that person’s attention is going to be focused, and they will tend to react on that basis.

I recently flubbed this one when i found out shortly before leading a workshop that the group had one member who was legally blind. Two or three times in the course of the day i found myself part way through explaining an exercise only to realize that the activity was not fully accessible, relying on ability to see for some central component. By being slow to adapt, i put both of us in a position where her role as blind person was the salient piece, thus cutting off access to other parts of her identity and doing both her and the group a disservice.

There are lots of different kinds of roles. Organizational roles refer to your place in group structures, such as being a maintenance honcho, steering committee member, or garden volunteer. Alternative cultural organizations are often sensitive to avoiding replication of the abusive hierarchies common in the mainstream, sometimes resulting in aversion to or rebellion against leadership roles altogether, which can be problematic. Instead of leaderless groups, i advocate leaderful groups, where over time everyone shares in the powers and responsibilities of creating and maintaining the community.

There are family system roles, seen when someone acts as mother, father or troubled child. (These roles are not necessarily prescribed by gender; for example, i am female, yet have often played the “father” role in communities i’ve lived in, being the one to hold up standards and keep things on track.) There are group dynamic roles, when people fulfill task-oriented (get the work done) or relationship-oriented (stay connected with each other) functions. And there are lots of other kinds of roles.

When roles become overly fixed, out of balance, or in some other way unhealthy, you can reexamine them to see what changes might be necessary. The key is usually for all involved to understand each other more, to fully hear each other, to walk a mile in each other’s shoes. This leads to either a shift in roles, or more appreciation, honor and comfort with existing roles.

Here are a few exercises you can try out for this purpose.


Four Corners
(thanks to Craig Freshley)

Preparation: put a sign for each category in a corner of the room.

Invite group members to self-select into one of the following categories, for the purpose of a short conversation. Ask the group, When the going gets tough in a group setting, do you seek:

1. Meaning: Why are we doing this, what’s the point?
2. Structure: What are the steps? What’s the time limit? Who’s in charge?
3. Caring: Everyone needs to feel OK.
4. Action: Let’s do something! Let’s try it out.

Ask group members to go to whichever corner they most identify with, and talk with others gathered there for about 15 minutes. Suggested focus questions include: What led you to come to this corner, what do you tend to do or resort to at those times? What do you need from the group then? What gifts do you offer to the group?

At the end of that time, invite a report-back from each corner to the full group, followed by general discussion.

“Who am I?” Sticky Notes
Fishbowl Version (thanks to José Acevedo)

Preparation: write a selection of group roles onto small sticky notes, such as “leader,” “confused,” “expert,” “angry,” “ignore me,” etc.

Ask for 4-5 volunteers to sit in a “fishbowl” (smaller dialogue in the center while the larger group quietly witnesses from an outer circle). Put one sticky note on each person’s forehead without that person seeing what’s written on the note, choosing a role that is not that person’s usual one. Ask the participants to treat each other according to the roles they see on the notes, and assign the group a topic to discuss. Pause the game after a little while and ask the participants, before they look at their own sticky notes, how they felt they were being treated. Then let them see what it says on the notes, and segue from there into a general discussion with the whole group on how we label people, how that affects how we speak and listen with them, and so on.

“Who am I?” Sticky Notes
Cocktail Party Version
(thanks to Shari Leach)

In this variation, every person in the group gets a random label on their forehead that they can’t see, and they mill around as at a cocktail party. Sample labels might include: “Goes on and on endlessly,” “Volatile temper,” “Quietest member,” “Annoying member,” “Conflict avoider,” etc. Again, let the interaction happen for a little while, then stop for whole group discussion.

Roles in Scenarios

Preparation: Write a few role descriptions onto index cards, such as “pro-whatever,” “anti-whatever,” “devil’s advocate,” “tired of the issue,” and “hates conflict.”

Choose a classic or current community debate, such as pet policy, food preferences, or how to get the work done.

Give out cards to a few people. Invite others to take whatever role they want—i often encourage people to try out a role that’s different from their usual one on that issue. Go ahead and have the discussion, and see what happens. Save time for debriefing afterward.

Note on De-Roling: After doing any form of role-playing, it’s important to de-role so that people can fully let go of being in that role and of any negative energy they might have picked up from playing it. De-roling consists of reminding people who they really are, perhaps engaging in some ritual motion to let go of the other identity.

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