Using small rituals to switch roles and behaviour

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 28, 2007
Filed in Collaboration

Our behaviour changes with the roles we play, and sometimes we need a trigger to remind us to move from one role to another to ensure our behaviour suits the context. The TV series, The West Wing, provides many good examples of where this switch falters. For example, President Bartlett will have an intense meeting with his advisors, Josh and Toby, and then receive a surprise visit by one of his daughters. In most cases the President fails to make the switch from leader to father and deals with his daughters in an inappropriate presidential fashion.


Dave Snowden brought this concept of an identity switch to my attention last week when Mark and I spent the day together in Canberra. He told the story of a project he was involved in helping lorry drivers reduce back injuries. At the end of a trip, a lorry driver changed roles from ‘lorry driver’ to ‘lorry unloader’ and in this role switch many drivers don’t change their mind-set to remember safe lifting practices.

To help the identity switch occur, Dave suggested the company introduce a ritual so that upon reaching the destination, and before unloading the truck, the driver must fasten a weight-lifting belt around his waist signifying the switch in roles from driver to unloader, and in the process helping him become aware of safe lifting practices.

We saw a similar identity switch occur for managers who need to switch roles from spreadsheet jockey to coach. For example, a manager might be working intensely on her computer when a staff member knocks at the door. A good manager can switch roles from being focussed on the computer to being focussed on the person. A useful ritual might be to stand up and move to another chair when someone arrives at your office, clearly signifying the change in roles.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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