How to Juggle Multiple Roles
October 5, 2013 Editor 0
To juggle—to fit in, manage, organize, and cope with. Sometimes I almost feel like I can’t breathe given the number of roles that I have: author, public speaker, leader, consultant, board member, boss, subordinate, peer, mom, wife, daughter, sister, friend, and my own person.
These days, we all take on multiple roles. With each role, come different responsibilities. All too often, we try to play each role perfectly, yet the many responsibilities—whether related to work, child care, or service—mean we will inevitably disappoint someone. In spite of potential drawbacks, researchers have found that playing multiple roles can not only be gratifying but can also enhance our performance as we develops broader skill sets and social support networks.
Yet at the same time managing multiple roles can lead to role conflict and time pressures that add to daily stress and strain. Multiple roles compete for our attention, with time spent on one role often coming at the expense of time spent on another– sometimes creating a win-loss situation for the various roles. Additionally, research indicates that role conflict and spillover can lead to stress, exhaustion, burn-out and lower life satisfaction – for not only those of us experiencing the conflict but for others in our lives as well. In short, our exhaustion and conflict can spill over to others.
Certainly, organizations should provide better policies and more flexibility to reduce the negative efforts of work and non-work conflicts, but we should also adopt strategies to managing role conflicts ourselves. Research suggests several tactics for proactively managing our roles.
- Prioritize roles. As we adopt various roles in our lives, we need to think about what we want to achieve in each. Trade-offs are inevitable, and we should make them consciously. We can start by listing and prioritizing our roles. This list can help us decide which ones are most important to us and how we will manage them. Work-life researchers commonly refer to this process as determining the centrality and importance of each of our roles within the scheme of our lives. Some people elevate one role over another (e.g., family over work); others elevate multiple roles to equal importance in their lives (e.g., family and work). By understanding our own values around our roles, we can make these choices deliberately. Baltes and Heydens-Gahir found that setting goals and priorities in both work and non-work roles helps alleviate stress and conflict. By doing so, we can identify where spill over exists and find ways to manage it.
- Think about the integration and separation of roles. Recent research has revealed that people differ in the extent to which they integrate or separate work and non-work roles. For example, some people prefer to leave work at the office and concentrate completely on non-work issues outside of the office and vice versa. Others allow for work and non-work activities to interact. Recent research has shown in fact that today’s millennials (born between 1982-1993) prefer to integrate their work and personal lives. Many are turning to work as a source of friendship. Thus, finding a work place where they can also socialize is of utmost importance. There is no one right strategy between using integration or separation of roles. The decision to integrate or separate roles hinges on personal preference, but research indicates that the ability to manage our roles and boundaries based on our preference of integration or separation is the key to minimizing conflict and stress.
- Determine important activities for each role. To manage our roles, we need to think deeply about each of them and identify their important behaviors. I can say that “I am an author.” It means that I write articles and books. But, it is more significant to think about what I need to do to be an author. A simple phrase change captures the difference: I am an author versus I am being an author. When I envision myself as “being an author,” I start to think about what behaviors I engage in. To be successful as an author, I should be researching a subject, reading other material, laying out the concept for an article, taking time each day to write, and working with editors and reviewers. By laying out the behaviors associated with each role (e.g., I am being a mom, wife, friend…), we can determine if we are focusing on the right activities. When I am being a mom, I am giving my attention to the kids – not responding to emails or thinking about work issues. Sometimes, success means staying in the moment for our roles and focusing on the behaviors that we must do for that particular role. Research also suggests that we may need to shift our own stereotypes and expectations regarding appropriate role behavior. Greenhaus and Beutell found that employed women who held traditional gender role attitudes experienced considerable conflict when they tried to fit the super-parent stereotype. They just couldn’t do it all the way they originally envisioned.
Overall, we need to manage each of our roles based on our personal motivation, energy, resources, and expectations. Even when we proactively manage our roles, conflict is inevitable. We can prepare ourselves for such cases by building a set of coping mechanisms, such as resetting our expectations, relying on others for support, and not engaging in negative self-talk, as we strive to be more effective in our personal and work roles. Periodically, we need to take stock of how things are going and assess what changes we need to make to be more effective, particularly in our top roles.
As someone once said, “The trick to juggling is determining which balls are made of rubber and which ones are made of glass.”
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