Starting Points #3: A Matter of Hats

This year I started a blog series on ‘Starting Points’ to understand how people look at regional development problems and solutions. 

The first post talked about our personal starting points: how the places and communities we are from shape the things we care about today. Our past experiences influence what we think positive regional development is, and what kinds of outcomes we look for.

The second post explored another type of starting point: professional or technical specialisation. What we have learned through our training frames how we see the world in general, and regional development in particular. Our training influences what we pay attention to and what we value.

In this post, we will look a third type of starting point: our social role. ‘Social role’ can mean our professional role, our organisational role, or our role in our community. In regional development work, all of these kinds of roles matter.

All roles are essentially social. Roles are about how others see us: for instance, as an expert, a facilitator, a local person, a business owner, a funder, a volunteer. Roles may include gender roles and other culturally defined roles such as ‘elder’ or ‘matriarch’. They may include formal organisational roles such as ‘CEO’ or ‘project manager’.

People may define social roles by sector (she’s from Government; he’s from Industry) or by profession (she’s an engineer; he’s a planner). We may define our own roles, and these may change: sometimes professor, sometimes board member, sometimes mum. Some roles are elected, some are appointed, some are informally given or adopted. As Sir Humphrey in ‘Yes, Minister’ famously said – ‘It’s a matter of hats.’

Social roles are our hats.

We all have a number of hats. Some of our roles fit more comfortably than others. Some we use more or less frequently. Indeed, some we would prefer to stuff in the back of the cupboard and forget about. Other hats, we may struggle to take off even at bedtime.

When it comes to regional development, hats matter. They matter to how we look at a problem or opportunity. They matter to how others expect us to look at a problem or opportunity. And they matter to what we are actually able to do about problems or opportunities – what anthropologists call our ‘room to manoeuver.’

Imagine, for instance, a committee that comes together for a task in their region. Some members may work for the Council, others for a local business, others may be volunteers. Some are women, or men; some are younger, or older; they may be from established families or ‘blow-ins’; professional or tradie; members of different communities or clubs.

Depending on their roles, and the particular hat they are wearing, each member of the committee will tend to frame their participation in certain ways, and seek certain kinds of outcomes. Others may encourage them to act in that role. So, for instance, the Council worker may feel compelled to mention regulations, and the business owner will query economic feasibility. The young person will be asked to comment on young people’s views, and club members on the opinions of their members.

The hat is a marker of expertise, of position, and ultimately of identity. Larger hats – that is, higher-status social roles – will tend to speak more, and be more easily heard.

However, no person is their hat. Every member of that committee has different hats, sometimes lots of hats – personal and professional. It matters what hats they choose to wear. The business owner may switch hats and mention child care; she is also a mother. The council worker can change hats and suggest a great idea about staging an event; he is also a member of the local theatre group. The young person speaks up and offers to promote the idea through her website: she has another hat, she is an entrepreneur. Hat switching can be powerful.

This simple example of the fictive committee begins to suggest the many different ways that social roles influence the dynamics of regional development work. Where single hats dominate, ideas and resources are limited. Where bigger hats dominate, and cover the ears of their wearers, ideas and insights are silenced.

On the other hand, when people come together and are unafraid to wear their multiple hats, creative solutions tend to follow.

It is interesting to observe that successful place leaders in local regions are often people who wear multiple hats. Busy people. They don’t merely ‘have’ different organisational and community hats; they actively wear them. I’ve often observed how effective place leaders make use of their various social roles to connect people across social boundaries. This enables them to mobilise a wide range of resources and relationships to benefit their communities.

Social roles are the starting point. But the next step is the powerful one: getting to know the person beneath the hat. The person: with all their hats. Because effective regional development is built on relationships.

Published by The Bush Prof

Professor Robyn Eversole is a practical regional development academic based in rural Tasmania.

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