Whose Role is it Anyway?

Role_Clarity_HeaderA community theatre production is an excellent example of role clarity in action. Having well-defined roles is as important there as it is in meeting facilitation, business, and life. And for the likes of me, role clarity is an essential life skill because I am a jack-of-many-trades and a master of none.

The thespian analogy is particularly sharp right now because of a community theatre production in which I am the onstage pianist. It is a four-person show: two men (Man 1 and Man 2) and two women (Woman 1 and Woman 2). Over the course of two hours, each actor plays upwards of a dozen distinct roles, each of which must be unique and clearly defined. In addition, the actors have the overall role of “actor” as distinct from the band, the stage crew, the lighting board operator, or the dressers. Each participant must focus on his/her role while remaining cognizant of and tapped into the whole in order for theatre magic to happen.

Meeting magic is similar. In good meetings there must be distinct and clearly defined roles. The same role focus coupled with general awareness is essential. Here are the six key roles.

  • Facilitator: The facilitator is a disinterested party whose role is to manage the mechanics of the meeting. Having no vested interest in any decision made during the meeting, the facilitator can plan and direct the process that gets the participants to the desired meeting outcome. The facilitator may not participate in the meeting content nor comment on it in any way.
  • Recorder: Like the facilitator, the recorder is an impartial role. The recorder is responsible for capturing the precise words of the participants during the main discussions and structured activities. Often, this involves writing ideas on flip charts or butcher paper in front of the meeting. The recorder does not revise or interpret anything that is said, but may ask for clarification.
  • Scribe: The scribe is responsible for all other note taking at a meeting. It is best for the scribe to also be disinterested, but not necessarily a requirement. The scribe captures other issues, sidebar conversations, and anything else that the recorder does not capture.
  • Participant: The participants are the people in a meeting who generate the ideas and make the decisions depending on the circumstances. In theory, they are directly interested in and affected by the meeting outcome.
  • Organizer: The organizer is the individual who arranges for the meeting to occur and contracts the facilitator and recorder. The organizer may be a participant and may also be the meeting owner. In general, the facilitator performs most of the planning in conjunction with the meeting organizer.
  • Owner: The owner is the individual (or individuals) who called the meeting in the first place. The owner may or may not participate, and the owner may or may not be the organizer. The owner may allow the participants to make decisions or may make his/her own decisions based on the meeting outcome.


As you can see, each of the roles is distinct and bounded by limitations. Nevertheless, some may remain unique within a situation while others overlap. In the latter case, clarity as to how they overlap is important in every situation. For instance, the executive who has gathered his line managers in order to set direction for the year needs to make clear to the participants whether or not they are setting the directions with the executive’s equal input, or whether they are there merely to provide the decision maker with information. Similarly, the Executive Director who organizes the annual planning retreat for a non-profit board of directors needs to understand clearly his role in the meeting. Is he an equal participant or is he there only to provide clarifications?   Ideally, the facilitator acts in facilitator role only, but in smaller meetings may also function as both facilitator and recorder.

Role clarity is really about articulating boundaries for the actions one will take within a given circumstance. Those boundaries define what the person will and will not do within the given role. Even where the boundaries are not sharp, where they start and end is important for everyone to understand. Boundaries become a form of contract between the participants in an activity. Even in role-playing games, there are clearly defined roles such as gamemaster to provide structure to the activity.

The reason these boundaries are so important is because each role has different requirements. That is, in order to fulfill a given role successfully, certain conditions need to exist or certain actions must be taken. When these conditions or actions come into conflict with one another, one or more of the roles cannot be fulfilled effectively. The role of facilitation requires neutrality while that of the meeting participant requires the opposite. Since the requirements conflict, one individual cannot fulfill these two roles within the same meeting. Similarly, a pianist accompanying a dance concert must focus on the mental and physical requirements of playing the instrument. The stage manager needs to be concerned with all of the technical details in every aspect of the production and cannot focus on those specific mental and physical needs. The requirements conflict, so the two roles must be separate.

This is not to say that the pianist cannot be a good stage manager or vice versa. In fact, one person may be able to assume a variety of roles successfully depending on the situation. The facilitator is also trained as a recorder and might have that role at one meeting and facilitator at another. In some companies, the facilitator might be a participant in meetings within his own department but act as facilitator for meetings in other departments. This is not unlike the theatre where an individual might be director for one production and an actor in another and perhaps a member of the stage crew in yet another.

Blended roles still require clarity and delineation. In the theatre, a production might require the actors to perform the scene changes as part of the choreographed action. In this case, the focus remains the characters and the onstage picture created for the audience. If an actor were to depart from this focus and take it upon herself to rearrange the stage left prop table between scenes, she is likely to miss an entrance as well as mess things up for the other cast members. Similarly, the facilitator who steps out of his neutral role and comments on the meeting content – no matter how correct or pertinent his observation – has violated his trust with the participants and may no longer be able to prevent meeting dysfunction.

Role clarity is a particular challenge for the jack-of-many-trades. It seems that we are born with a low threshold of boredom and thrive on new knowledge and skills. We delight in acquiring new competencies but more often than not move on to something new before achieving mastery. Consequently, we frequently find ourselves in situations where we could advise on a number of topics and this is where the danger lies. Doing so results in two consequences. First, we run the risk of not fulfilling our own role adequately because we have allowed our focus to wander or the role requirements conflict. Second, we tread upon the roles of others, which causes stress and confusion that erodes team cohesion.

In no case is role clarity a mandate for tunnel vision. Each individual needs to be fully aware of everyone else involved in whatever the circumstances. In a meeting, the participants need to be as aware of the signals the facilitator is sending as he is of the changing needs in the room. Similarly, actors and stage crew in the theatre troupe should be aware of their surroundings enough to recognize when something has gone wrong and be able to make a correction for it. Role clarity and environmental awareness work hand in hand. It is the integration of the diverse roles working together that makes the magic happen.

Are the roles in your organization clearly defined? Where in life do we need to apply these principles the most?




2 thoughts on “Whose Role is it Anyway?

  1. Christopher says:

    Hmm. What I’ve found in practice is that when organizing a meeting within a team, it’s rare that there will be anyone at that meeting who does not have a stake in the outcome. If the meeting’s decision doesn’t concern you, the prevailing logic seems to be that you have better things to do! In certain cases, I’ve seen a proper facilitator, who occasionally doubles as a recorder, but those have been because the larger organization has deliberately recognized the need for a person to fill that role (e.g. Google’s “Technical Program Managers”), and even then you get some meetings without one. Instead, the default seems to be that the owner/organizer acts as recorder (with all the potential trouble inherent in that), and facilitation is done ad-hoc with nobody really *assigned* to the role at all. This seems especially prevalent in startupland, at least as I’ve experienced it.

    • bimuse says:

      Chris, you raise an excellent point and a major omission from my essay. Yes, there are many meeting situations where a facilitator is not required. Small, self-managing teams work very well in this manner. Generally, though, such meetings have a structure all their own and all (or most) of the participants have a similar stake in the quality of the outcome. I am thinking particularly of the Agile scrum. But the more different stakes you add into the mix(e.g., multiple departments), or the more different viewpoints, the ability to self-manage a meeting (especially one that is decision-oriented and not merely informational) decreases.

      In fact, very few organizations recognize the value of facilitated meetings. Oddly enough, I am seeing more enlightenment with respect to that in local civic government than I have seen in the corporate or business world. Even in companies that employ people with facilitation training, not all meetings will be facilitated. That said, good planning and facilitation can turn a six-hour squabble into a productive day.

      Overall, of course, the essay was as much about role clarity in all facets of life as it was specifically about meeting roles. And just to complete your thought about self-managed meetings, I am reminded of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which rehearses and performs without a conductor. So thank you for the excellent extension to the conversation.

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