Everyone plays different roles in life. No, not fictional roles, like a doctor in a TV show or an extra in a movie. In life, everyone has a set of roles: mother, teacher, brother, son, banker, wife, community leader, etc. Often, these roles come with expectations and responsibilities. And with these expectations and responsibilities comes the possibility of phenomena like role conflict, role strain, and role ambiguity. Maybe you have experienced role conflict or role strain in your life, but you haven’t had a term for this feeling until now. This post is going to go over the differences in role conflict vs. role strain, other ways roles make us feel, and how to feel more comfortable juggling different roles.
What Is Role Theory?
Role conflict, role strain, and other similar terms are branches that stem from the larger role theory. Role theory looks at the roles that people take on and how the expectations for those roles influence behavior, decisions, and intergroup dynamics.
Sociologists Talcott Parsons, Ralf Dahrendorf, and Erving Goffman are big names in the creation of role theory. Similarly, psychologist Erik Erikson described terms like “identity crisis,” which plays into how a person fits into their roles.
Keep in mind that people often play a handful of roles at once. A person can be a mother and a daughter. They can be a friend and a partner. People hold jobs, live in communities, and interact with family and friends in which they hold all these different roles. Different cultures and communities may have different sets of expectations for each role. This is where phenomena like role conflict and role strain come into play.
What Is Role Conflict?
Role conflict occurs when the expectations for two or more roles conflict with each other. A person may be asked to perform a duty that directly conflicts with the duties and expectations of another role. This conflict may leave the person feeling unsure about whether they should perform that duty.
What Is Role Strain?
Role strain occurs when a person cannot fulfill a role. There are many reasons why a person may feel strained by a role: maybe they aren’t clear about the role, haven’t practiced the role, or don’t have the time to fulfill it.
Role Conflict vs Role Strain
Often, people distinguish role conflict and role strain by the number of roles discussed. Often, role strain occurs to the strain of a singular role, although it is possible for a person to feel strained by multiple roles at once. Role conflict can only occur with two or more roles that conflict with each other.
The biggest difference when comparing role conflict vs. role strain is the compatibility of each role. A person can feel comfortable living as a mother, wife, and PTA board member, but the expectations of all three roles are simply too time-consuming, so the person feels role strain. As a mother, wife, and VP of a company that requires your attention 24/7, you may feel conflicted about how much time you spend focused on each of your roles, especially in a society that isn’t built with working mothers in mind. Maybe your job doesn’t have policies that allow you to spend too much time at home. Role conflict and role strain may occur when a person is juggling multiple roles, but the culture and expectations surrounding each role can prevent strain or conflict from occurring.
Examples of Role Conflict vs. Role Strain
Role Conflict as a Waitress
Let’s say you were raised in a religion and have been a follower of this religion your entire life. You feel your role in the organization, and understand the expectations placed upon you. One of these expectations is to dress modestly. You are told that if you wear tight pants, show a lot of skin, or dress flashy, you will not be accepted in your community.
Then, you get a job as a waitress in a bar. Your boss tells you that most people dress more casually than what you’re used to wearing. They suggest that you get some tops that aren’t turtlenecks or try wearing shorts. You recognize that you will stick out if you wear the modest clothes of your religious community, but you don’t want to wear anything that will go against it, either. You feel conflicted.
Role Strain as a Waitress
Let’s say you are a follower of a religious community and work at a restaurant job that has similar dress codes. You feel comfortable dressing smart whether you are at church or work. The problem is, both organizations require a lot of your attention and time. Your religious group wants you to attend sermons, bake fairs, youth groups, and a lot of other events that easily take up at least 25 hours a week. Your restaurant job wants you to come in for at least 40 hours a week to get certain benefits. With getting ready and commuting to each organization alone, the majority of your time is eaten up. You have little room for time with family and friends, or for dating, traveling, or pursuing other hobbies. These two roles can put a lot of strain on someone!
Role Conflict as a Mother in Business
Western society has, for many centuries, expected women to be soft, delicate, and nurturing people while men are expected to be more aggressive. Many business roles, particularly leadership roles, have been given to men. Watching any movie from the 70s or 80s will show you that men in CEO or business leadership roles are meant to be confident, aggressive, and have a single focus on making money.
Even though times have changed, a lot of people still expect aggression and competitiveness from business leaders. A woman who may have been raised to be polite, courteous, and delicate may feel conflicted as she enters the business world and sees colleagues who are more aggressive getting promotions and deals. She has not tapped into this side of her personality and wonders if it conflicts with who she is as a mother and a wife.
Role Strain as a Mother in a Different Culture
Let’s say an expectant mother was raised in a Western culture. She has friends who were raised in a similar culture and has grown up watching media that portrays mothers in a certain way. But, the father of her child was raised in a different culture. The mother wants to be respectful to her partner’s family and culture, but she’s not sure if there are differences in the way she expects to parent her child and the expectations of her partner’s family. She also doesn’t know how to bring up the subject, so she feels strained in this upcoming role.
Other Terms in Role Theory
Not all roles are communicated to a child or young adult. Different cultures may have different expectations for their members, and unless those expectations are explicitly shared, someone entering a new role may feel confused. This is role ambiguity. For example, an American student who transfers to a school in Morocco may be confused about the rules and expectations for students.
A role set consists of multiple roles that fall under a single, overarching role. For example, if you are an American citizen, you likely have the responsibilities of a role set. Because you are an American, you are a taxpayer, a voter, and a member of Western society. Even though these roles may take up little time in your day-to-day life, they are responsibilities that come with separate roles.
Role competition occurs when two or more roles compete with each other. They may not conflict in values or responsibilities, but they compete for time and prioritization.
Role overload occurs when a person has to live up to the expectations of many roles at once. While the expectations of these roles may not directly conflict, they may put a strain on the person’s schedule or capacity. Role overload can leave a person feeling tired or overwhelmed. It can also lead to role strain.
How to Overcome Role Conflict, Role Strain, and More
Know that you are not alone.
Role conflict and role strain are a natural part of taking on new roles and growth. It is not your fault if you happen to take on multiple roles that conflict or compete with each other. There are eight billion people in the world, so there are bound to be many different cultures and roles with many different rules and expectations.
Practice stress management techniques.
Stressed by a new job or a daunting task? Take a deep breath. Just because something stresses you out doesn’t mean it can’t be done! Stay calm and look for ways to reduce conflict or strain.
Communicate with people in your community.
Can you dress modestly in one setting, and then change into other clothes just for work? Is it okay to act a certain way at work, then shed that persona when you’re around friends? People in your community who have been through similar journeys may be able to advise you on how to navigate multiple roles in a way that still feels true to who you are and who you want to be.