“Was the person I never became still part of me?”
Fernanda Pacheco, INSEAD EMCCC alumni
I extensively used role biography as a self-coaching technique during a two-year Executive Master’s program in organizational psychology. I reflected on the roles I had assumed throughout my life in several case papers and as part of my thesis. An emerging concern was the role of authenticity – had I increasingly neglected the essence of myself to meet familial and / or societal expectations, both real and perceived ones? And was it time to shed those, to become more authentic? Fernanda Pacheco, an EMCCC alumn (that’s the master program I attended), asks “Was the person I never became still part of me”. I noted this and recently discovered it – there seems to be a message for me in it.
Making sense of roles
Role is defined as “the pattern of attitude, meaning, feeling, and behavior that characterizes an individual’s way of living and working within the various systems of activity, such as family, work organization, professional association, social clubs etc. through which a life is led” (Newton, 2013).
As a former member of a drama club (I performed as a teenager), I always enjoyed taking on roles. However, now, as an adult, I find it increasingly difficult to shed them. My biggest challenge is to identify less with a role of management consultant (and opt for what feels like a more authentic professional self). This particular identity had become overly fused with my identity – seemingly at the price of many other (professional) identities.
One of my first attempts to view the role of management consultant from a more distant perspective consisted in completing a written exercise in September 2016. It assessed whether and under which circumstances I still enjoyed being a consultant (the focus being the application of role biography (from age 20 to age 40). The exercise shed light on my question: why did and do I have difficulties shedding the role of management consultant? The objective was to let the answers and reflections emerge – to give them space to do so.
I first performed an inventory of various organizations I had served as a consultant from age 20 to 40. I then briefly identified the activities and circumstances related to the consulting role. I reflected on the project setting in a third step and then identified positive aspects of my role. Then, I set out to identify the negative aspects of it.
Freelance consulting for an international intergovernmental organization: Role as a strategic management consultant for a Palestinian trade organization.
Setting: Sandwich position having to negotiate different interests / stakeholders, lack of professionalism, geopolitical nature of project / conflict setting.
Positive: Role of temporary consultant, outsider position (not part of overall system); opportunity to abstain from office politics as much as possible, impression of serving a greater good.
Negative: Lack of professionalism, lack of donor coordination.
Best practice consulting at a global insights and technology company, London: Role as a strategic research consultant in a highly revenue-driven, competitive environment.
Setting: very professional, very international, very structured.
Positive: Role of expert, lots of customer contact, ambitious colleagues.
Negative: Having to comply with a corporate structure, and to fit in. Overly revenue-driven environment leading to short-term focus (in 50% of cases).
Public sector consulting for a global consulting organization in Germany: Role as senior consultant for an IT consulting firm.
Setting: professional, revenue-driven environment.
Positive: Friendly colleagues, non-dominant corporate structure.
Negative: Inefficient project, weekly travel, complex project setting and multiple project partners not delivering on time.
Internal consulting for an international bank in Germany: Role as senior consultant.
Setting: professional, lack of fair process.
Positive: Friendly and very intelligent, ambitious colleagues, no weekly travel.
Negative: Having to adapt to a very dominant corporate culture, strict divisional culture (“focus on your improvement areas, not on what you already know how to do well”), project engagements in PMO (project management office), lack of fair process and lack of professional growth.
Conclusion of the role analysis exercise: Preference for expert and freelance roles. Note that this conclusion resembled an intermediate finding. Half a year later, my unhappiness with my role as management consultant became apparent in a biographical note (April (2017): “Increasingly, especially in the last job, I felt like I wasn't in tune with myself anymore. It's funny, a couple weeks back, I started writing the intro to the thesis, and it was a short intro about, imagine you're a disillusioned corporate consultant and each day, you go into the office and you perfect the art of creating beautiful PowerPoint slides [you navigate corporate politics, you appease stakeholders. The money is really good and you look at all of your friends and you wonder whether you should just settle down, find a guy, get married, have a kid, and buy an apartment]. None of it really appealed to me any longer”.
This very powerfully illustrates that professional and personal change always go hand in hand – the role of management consultant was in my perception tied to being a “compliant” member of society (get married, have kids).
Connecting the clues: the usefulness of role biography
Role biography as a coaching technique is so appealing because it explores “a biography of the person-in-role as described through various (work) roles that they have taken up throughout their lives” (Long, 2013). Coachees experience an A-HA moment when they realize they are more than the sum of the (professional) roles they assume. Getting to this stage might resemble detective work: coach and coachee together distill patterns, similarities between roles. Role biography probes about distinct roles and positive as well as negative states which impacted coachees. Reflecting on childhood roles and experiences is a useful component of the analysis.
As stated above: Actively reflecting and narrating one’s role at various stages of one’s life kicks off a cognitive process that can be likened to detective work. It encourages self-narration, an exercise that most coachees have not or rarely engaged in before. It allowed me personally to notice more strongly that some of my behaviors may have been informed by others’ expectations, not by my own choices.
Applying the role biography technique helped me differentiate between “learned” roles and more “authentic” roles / selves. After all, the dynamics of a role including hidden expectations of the social context become apparent in role biography coaching (Newton, 2013, p. 206). Note that the coachee’s willingness to engage in role biography research can serve as a platform for a change process, both private and professional.
Increasing authenticity in my (future) roles – what I have learned so far
“Most of us are too concerned with what others think of us. As such, we may disguise or manipulate features of our personality to better assure that others aren’t judgmental or adversely reactive to us” (Mel Schwartz). This already hints at the dynamics inherent to roles and to which extent authenticity is possible within this framework – roles may detract from authenticity. Applying role biography may help an individual becomes truer to himself or herself. For me, authenticity was and continues to be connected to creativity – my quest to rejuvenate my little c (everyday) creativity and ultimately, obtaining a professional role which would allow me to work more creatively.
As such, I applied role biography in my quest for more authenticity (and creativity), zooming in on at what stages of my life I had been creative or identified as a creative person. I assessed this with respect to ages 6, 16, 26, 36 and now (40). It revealed, and reminded me that I had pursued creative endeavors in my early 20ies (when I lived and studied in Berlin, London, Tokyo -> cities with strong creative industries). My role back then was that of a student.
I realized that the pressure to comply seemed self-made in my case: my idealization of and wish to join the consulting profession first surfaced during an internship with an international intergovernmental organization at age 23. I grew increasingly frustrated with the organization and associated a future professional self as a consultant with an all transforming experience: “Ultimately, maybe I wanted to make myself more efficient by attaching so much value to that particular image of a profession [the consulting profession] and maybe I thought that professional success will help me to be a more lovable person or something”.
Role biography can be used to address different quests – this article focusses on a coachee’s wish for an increased level of authenticity (while going through the process of shedding an old, deeply ingrained professional role). The technique could be deployed to achieve higher levels of awareness for example pertaining to different assessment, such as one’s leadership style, or on a more personal level, patterns in romantic relationships.
While I have not completed my quest for authenticity and creativity in my future professional self, and have not found a matching role, I am confident that continuously applying role biography coaching will help me achieving this. Alas, it is crucial to accept a certain degree of uncertainty that accompanies this quest. The above provided a snapshot of how the technique can be leveraged in a coaching and self-coaching context.
To connect with Caroline-Lucie Ulbrich
“Caro, you are so cosmopolitan” – this is what I often get to hear. German-French by birth, I have spent many years working as a management consultant and am slowly transitioning into more creative industries. Reflecting on transitions, career changes and the underleveraged roles of creativity and playfulness are part of this. I have a passion for maneki nekos (“lucky cats”), sustainable fashion and Vinyasa yoga. Slowly but surely, Asia has become my second home turf.
Long, S. (2013). Socioanalytic methods: Discovering the hidden in organisations and social systems. London: Karnac Books.
Schmidt, M. (2005). Individuation: Finding oneself in analysis – taking risks and making sacrifices. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 50(5), 595-616.
Schwartz, Mel: Seeking authenticity. And the path to true happiness. Retrieved on 11/06/2017. URL: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shift-mind/201208/seeking-authenticity
Tønnesvang, J., Sommer, U., Hammink, J., & Sonne, M. (2010). Gestalt therapy and cognitive therapy—Contrasts or complementarities? Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 47(4), 586-602.