Understanding the Roles of Others in the Workplace: “Trading Places”

When I traveled this previous weekend, I found myself sitting on the plane, stumped on what to write for my next post. A sheet of paper lay bare on the drop-down tray in front of me and a fresh ballpoint pen in my hand and I started thinking, “I wonder what it would be like to work on a plane? What if I were the one giving emergency flight instructions while graciously suggesting specials on the beverage menu? How would customers treat me? What kinds of challenges would I have to deal with?” We’ve all thought about trading places before in one way or another: being the pilot who’s steering your flight, the police officer writing your ticket, the doctor listening to your heart beat or the cashier at the grocery store… the list goes on and on. And if you ever got the opportunity to actually live on the other side, how do you think you would feel?


In the case of the flight attendants on my plane, I thought about their responsibilities, challenges, worries and how I would treat them differently if I were in their shoes for just one day. If I knew what their lives were like, would I be a little more courteous when they asked for my drink order? And would I actually pay attention to their emergency instructions or continue flipping through my magazine? Needless to say, my thoughts of what I would do and how I would act changed for the rest of the plane ride once I took it all into consideration. I truly feel like I was much more understanding of their roles simply by stopping to think about it for a moment. And then I thought to myself, how would we all change our thoughts and actions if we simply put ourselves in others’ shoes?



One key to all successful relationships is to understand all sides. In the workplace, this also holds true. Everyone has different responsibilities and priorities and understanding where each person
falls on the workplace spectrum will help you start to improve your relationships significantly!


Maybe you find yourself annoyed with a co-worker or frustrated with your boss, but have you thought about their own stressors and worries? You may be worried about making a deadline on one piece of a project, but your boss may be stressed about the whole thing! Your boss may have
another boss who has another boss to answer to – so they are probably just as stressed out as you are.


Or you may have a co-worker who’s filling in for an empty manager’s role and is feeling a little stressed with the added pressures placed on their shoulders. It may be no sweat off your back, but to a more senior level employee, it may be their chance to rise to the occasion and that kind of opportunity can be just as stressful as it is exciting.

It’s important to understand other roles for a number of reasons. When you understand others, you can see how different positions and responsibilities complement each other and how it all fits together. Simultaneously, you’ll be able to avoid overloading yourself, ambiguity on duties, doubling up on efforts or competing for responsibilities.


Why are roles so important? What happens if they aren’t clearly defined? Each role at work reflects a different angle and piece of the puzzle. A clear understanding of roles can help with your personal career development, team building, relationships with colleagues and just an overall better understanding of everything around you. Roles may change because of reorganization, mergers, leadership changes, technology or whatever else the case may be – but having clear roles will lead to succinct and efficient teamwork. Teams work best when there is a balance of responsibilities and team members know their roles, can work to their strengths and manage weaknesses.


You may want to ask yourself the following questions to gain a better understanding of your role and team dynamics:

  • What team role do you play?
  • What contribution do you make?
  • Does your team role fit your personality, etc.?

Also consider taking a few moments to observe others and how they behave. What roles do they play?


Remember, too, that it’s not just about you! It’s about your relationships and how you relate to others, so you may want to consider “trading places” for a better understanding of those around you!

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