Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

Many people in organizations experience confusion from time to time due to changes in job roles or organizational structure, turnover in management or peers, or even the positive circumstance of company growth. But it’s becoming oddly typical for middle managers to express great frustration about their lack of role clarity. And unfortunately, even senior managers sometimes make the same complaint.

What do these managers mean? They say they can’t figure out how to move forward on complex projects, or don’t know who has authority over certain decisions or responsibility for certain outcomes. And sometimes, in focus groups for employee relations, particular executives are even singled out as problematic specifically because they haven’t provided their staffs with sufficient role clarity.

Lack of Role Clarity is a Misdiagnosis

Asking for role clarity is an indirect way to tell our leaders we don’t understand what they want from us or we’re afraid that they want something we can’t deliver. It can feel less personally threatening to believe that they must not have told us what they really want, what they really mean, since we don’t know how to do it, rather than acknowledging that we don’t feel prepared or trained to do the job that’s expected of us.

Often, a lack of role clarity is used as an explanation for why colleagues don’t get along or aren’t able to figure out how to work together. This cover story is oddly reminiscent of siblings who, in childhood, tape a line down across the middle of their shared bedroom floor to clearly divide the room into “my” side and “your” side.

But simply dividing one person’s territory from another’s can create real problems of access and effectiveness, say, when one sibling has to ask permission to go and look in the mirror over the dresser, or the other has to ask to be able to use the door! Sometimes such definitive division, although intended to make things perfectly obvious, only leads to absurd accusations of trespass: “You stuck your nose over the line and breathed my air!”

In the workplace, simply drawing a bright line between colleagues’ responsibilities can lead to the same kinds of silly escalations. And such bickering and conflicts can, in turn, lead to bottlenecks and ongoing complications when company decision-makers can’t come to a shared understanding or management tries to legislate detailed work agreements or, say, regulate the nits and grits of appropriate conversation and what topics and distribution lists may be included in memos.

Who Needs Role Clarity?

Here’s the thing about role clarity: The lower down in the hierarchy you are, the more you need it. If you’re an hourly worker, or one of many in the same job, or if you’re evaluated specifically on task completion, particularly tasks of short duration, or you’re paid by work unit, you’d better know specifically what those duties are and how to carry them out.

And it is true that in some companies, executives at the very top do not provide enough direction, leaving even managers feeling somewhat insecure. But, in general, if you’re not a frontline worker or a direct supervisor, and you have to keep asking for role clarity — and if you can’t think, let alone get any work done without it — then you’re not functioning as a leader or as an executive. You can’t really act responsibly or wield authority unless you have the acumen, sophistication, and lucidity of purpose to figure out what you can do to move the team or the organization forward — particularly when conditions are uncertain and the future is unclear.

Instead of Role Clarity

Merriam-Webster defines clarity as “the quality of being easily understood: the quality of being expressed, remembered, understood, etc., in a very exact way.” The requirement for exactness is what’s behind the management problem. Inexactness is often a hallmark of the conceptual beliefs that underpin an organization’s mission, vision, and culture. The organization’s big picture and general trajectory may be discussed with frequency and passion, and we may talk about “how we do things here,” but the descriptions and explanations are often inexact.

What’s exact are certain procedural aspects, rules of operation, and detailed tasks that tend to be most relevant lower down in the organization. When you hear frontline employees crying about clarity, it often signifies management problems a level up — that the leadership isn’t clear about the specifics by which the working corps is directed and measured.

But when senior managers and executives complain about lack of clarity, more often than not, they have neither the confidence nor the competence to take steps and make decisions about how to move forward unless someone reduces the uncertainty for them, neither do they know how to work collaboratively with their peers based on their own influence and standing.

Onward and upward,


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Whose job is it anyway?

Activities versus Outcomes
The battle for talent is an ongoing and long standing reality in the workplace. It does not seem to dissipate with time. When any situation does not improve, I automatically ask why this is the case. I think part of the answer is to be found in the wayward formulation of job descriptions/role profiles or whatever the particular phrase is for describing roles the workplace.
So often I have seen a long “shopping’ list of activities that I am left wondering what the actual key focus areas are of the advertised position.
It is no wonder that job adverts are met with a flurry of CV’s, many of which are not really relevant.  So, much is made of the number of applications received but had the advert been properly constructed, it would have served as a filter for many unnecessary CV’s.
Besides, talent does not relish the idea of applying for a position that appears to be more activity driven than outcomes based. The result? Disappointment with the caliber of applicants.
Do we learn from this incident? Of course………..not!

Involve the job holder
I am reminded of a situation in a food manufacturing plant that was in dire need of a replacement forklift for their packaging warehouse. The existing forklift had seen better days and was spending more time in the repairs workshop than in the warehouse.
After perusing the catalogues and obtaining the necessary approvals, the Plant Manager proceeded to order a new forklift.  Somehow the forklift operator came to hear about the choice of forklift and attempted to discuss this with the Plant Manager. However due to the busy diary of the Manager, it was only after the forklift arrived that the overdue meeting took place. By that time it was too late.
The newly acquired forklift, it turned out, was unable to negotiate the tight turns required to manoeuvre the loads in that particular warehouse.

The lesson
What were the consequences? Firstly, urgent corrective action had to be taken to ensure continuity of operations as the products, being perishable, had to be wrapped, boxed and transported to the various retail outlets within short time frames. As a result, another forklift had to be hired as an interim measure. As the plant was situated away from the city, delivery of the “interim” forklift did not happen as quickly as required.
The “new” forklift had to be replaced after only 1 day on the job. This attracted additional costs as the supplier would only take it back at a reduced fee and after having sourced another client for this machine.
As a consequence of the delay in arranging a workable forklift, scheduled delivery dates were not met resulting in unhappy clients. Some even threatened to source an alternate supplier. Fortunately this did not transpire but it could quite easily have.

The call of Leadership
The lesson? Avoid the “simple” oversight regarding the decision that affects the outcomes of the particular job holder. Not only does this save time, money and reputation, it also serves to motivate the job holder. People take pride in knowing that they have a role to play in the decision that affects them and make a concerted effort to succeed at the task. Why? Because they have bought into the decision even if it was finally made by someone else. When people are involved they feel valued and this contributes to building an enviable employer brand.
Ultimately it is the human element that provides the sustainable competitive edge in the market. Companies do not have a long period of competitive advantage by relying solely on access to non-human capital. The same applies to research and development. The window of competitive advantage here closes pretty rapidly too.
The only lasting competitive advantage resides in harnessing the potential and commitment of people you lead.

Whose job is it anyway? was first posted on February 18, 2011 at 2:48 pm.
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