The Right Role At The Right Time

"If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." - Abraham Maslow, behavioral psychologist

How do you manage your roles at work and at home? Most of us have many different roles that we play throughout the day. The important thing to remember is to match the appropriate role with the situation - use the right tool for the job. A three-part approach is to identify your favorite role, then assess the situation, and finally, if your favorite role isn't a good match, choose a more appropriate role to play. Many unproductive conflicts you have with others are actually about misinterpreting the situation rather than an interpersonal problem.

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Step One: Identify Your Favorite Roles

While there are many roles you may play, in ambiguous or very stressful situations a typical reaction is to go to a "familiar role" often one you play with family or friends. Your familiar role has a strong pull and will often be your go to role because it typically showcases your strengths. That is why when a situation is unfamiliar you may revert to a familiar role in order to be on solid ground even if it makes the situation more turbulent.

Think about a time when using your familiar role resulted in a negative outcome that was frustrating, disappointing, confusing or caused resentment. Now remember the situation and imagine a do over - a different role you could have chosen. Would going to this role have made a difference? For example, while you may be an excellent problem solver, what would happen if someone came to you with a problem and you asked them if they just needed you to listen? Would you, being in the role of listener, enable them to find their own solution? It may seem ironic that using your strengths could create problems, yet your advice may fill up the space that others could use to find their own answers.

Step Two: Assess the Situation

Below are four situations with sample roles which indicate what action is needed. You may not agree with match of situations to roles and that's fine. The point is to intentionally choose a role rather than just react out of habit.

Sample Situations and Roles:

A. Options need to be explored - Facilitator             

B. Buy-in is essential - Influencer

C. Know-how is needed - Trouble Shooter                                

D  Follow procedures - Monitor


Step Three: Matching Your Role to the Situation

To be successful you will need to have a menu of roles, an awareness of what works and what doesn't, and learn how to choose a role to match the situation. It takes practice to remain curious about what role the situation requires and having a tool kit will help. An effective way to practice matching roles to situations is to think about grouping the situational roles by color:    red = action, green = communication, blue = consideration, and yellow = cooperation.


  • Know-how is needed - Trouble Shooter
  • A decision needs to be made - Closer
  • No time to delegate - Expert 


  • Many hands are needed - Team Builder
  • Buy-in is essential - Influencer
  • Skepticism needed - Contrarian


  • Brainstorm new ideas - Innovator
  • All points of view aired - Facilitator
  • Identify the greater good - Listener


  • Shared values are essential - Mediator
  • Data needs to be processed - Researcher
  • Procedures critical to follow - Monitor

Often determining the right role for the situation requires figuring it out on the spot. Revisit your the familiar roles you play and see if there are red, green, blue and yellow roles you can use in the predictable situations encountered at work and home.

If you are missing a color or two, borrow the right "color" role from the chart above. Having a role to go to in the short term allows you to "act-as-if", giving you time to think, be curious, imagine, and identify a role that you can play productively in the long term.