Does your team suffer from having unclear roles and responsibilities? Team members might end up doing a lot of work, but is it the *right* work or are they wasting time?
Are your people doing work that other people are already completing? Or are your people confused about what they really should be doing?
If the answer to any of these questions is “maybe” or “yes!”, you can improve this situation by clarifying the roles and responsibilities of your team members.
Why Clear Roles and Responsibilities Are So Important
Having well-defined roles and responsibilities is important in a team. Without them, you’re likely to see a number of issues.
Here are some examples of the damage that unclear roles and responsibilities can cause:
- Your people don’t understand how they fit into the team. It can be hard for your people to find that “task significance”. Task significance is what helps people feel like their job makes a difference. They understand the value of the role they play.
- Your people waste time. Perhaps they are working on things they shouldn’t be. Maybe they are doing work that other people already have on their list. Or perhaps they aren’t doing important work that they really should be doing!
- Team members can’t tell if they are doing a good job. If roles and responsibilities are unclear, it’s hard to be certain about where to focus your effort.
- Conflict and frustration is commonplace. When work is forgotten and needs to be done in a rush, or multiple people are trying to do the same work at the same time, the natural outcome is frustration and conflict. Before long, people might start playing the blame game.
Many leaders will probably say that roles and responsibilities in their team are very clear. However, this is only true if everyone thinks the same thing!
I’ve worked in environments where nothing is written down or defined, and people work it out as they go along. This is not an environment where you can guarantee quality work.
You need to make sure that everyone understands the roles and responsibilities in your team. Everybody needs to be on the same page. This will help your people be productive, feel valuable and improve motivation.
Learn More: 4 Job Satisfaction Killers That Are Demotivating Your Team.
A Word of Warning: Rigid Roles and Responsibilities Can Reduce Motivation
Clarifying roles and responsibilities is important. However, we must be careful not to go too far.
If you define your team’s roles and responsibilities in minute detail, you may have a problem on your hands.
One of the most important factors in motivating team members is being able to provide them with autonomy.
That is, they need some ability to control the way they work, without needing to follow strict instructions every time.
Following strict instructions can get boring really fast, so flexibility is important.
The more experienced your people are, the more they will demand autonomy, because they are highly skilled and will start to resent being told how to do their jobs.
How detailed your roles and responsibilities are will depend on the work that you team does, and the level of experience they bring to the table.
So be sure to use caution. While it may be tempting to develop a super-detailed set of roles and responsibilities, this can stifle the creativity and independence of your team or have them feeling bored about their work.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #42: Moving Your People Along the Motivation Spectrum.
How to Fix Unclear Roles and Responsibilities in Your Team
1. Clarify Roles in Your Team by Finding the Responsibility Gaps
Sometimes it can be a good idea to work out the difference between what your people are doing, and what you really need them to be working on.
Start by listing out the tasks you need your team members to be performing as part of their role. Use their job description as a guide. Hint: If they don’t have a job description, create one, even if it’s just a simple list of bullet points!
Now, write down the tasks that they actually are performing. Is there a difference? If so, this is the gap between the role you need them to play and what they are actually doing. Chances are, this has happened because roles and responsibilities are unclear.
It’s quite common for people to do work they shouldn’t be focused on, instead of the work that you really need them to do.
Sometimes this happens because other people outside of your team may be asking them to complete other tasks. Or, your team may be volunteering to work on other things, outside of their core duties.
Fixing the Gaps
When roles and responsibilities are unclear, your team is vulnerable to this sort of problem. After all, if people don’t know any better, they may simply choose to focus on the tasks they enjoy most (which might not be the ones you need them to work on).
You can see this shown as The Gap, in the chart below.
For every gap you find, you need to clarify the role or team who should actually be performing the work.
It’s possible that another team might actually be performing work that is your team’s responsibility. Or, your people might be doing the work of another team, which takes the focus off their own role.
If you find large gaps, or these gaps are resulting in stress for your team, then you should look at making a change. Use your list of responsibility gaps as the starting point to have some conversations and get everyone “singing from the same hymn sheet”.
Seeing Performance Issues In Your Team? Try These Things.
2. Clarify Roles in Your Team by Creating a RACI
Consider clearing up unclear roles and responsibilities by developing a RACI matrix to define the roles in the team. RACI stands for:
- R = Responsible: The person actually doing the work.
- A = Accountable: The person who will be ultimately held accountable for the work, or approve it. This is often a manager (probably you).
- C = Consulted: A person who should be consulted for their input about the work. These people could be outside of your team.
- I = Informed: A person who should be informed of the outcome or progress of the work, but they shouldn’t really have a say in how the work is done.
Create a table and write a list of the people or roles at the top, and the tasks or functions of the team on the left. In each entry in the table, you need to put one or more of the RACI letters, as shown below.
Important Notes For Fixing Roles and Responsibilities With Your RACI Matrix
- Each task should only have one “A”. Only one person should be accountable for something. Hint: If everybody is accountable, nobody is accountable!
- You can have multiple “R” entries for a task. This means more than one person actually performs the work, which is quite common.
- You can have an “AR”. This means that the person who is accountable is also doing the work.
- “C” is for consultation only. This means the person doesn’t perform the work. Instead, you just ask for their input and feedback.
- Try not to have too many “I”s. There is a temptation to inform everybody about everything, but you should concentrate on the people who really need to know.
Once you have created your RACI, make sure that everyone understands what it means. Ask for feedback and see whether you need to make any adjustments. It’s also helpful to let your own boss know about the matrix too, so they are clear about what your team is doing.
It’s also important to set clear expectations about following the RACI matrix. You need to refer to it consistently so the message sinks in. I’ve seen many teams create a RACI expecting everybody to use it, but then nobody takes any notice!
Learn More: People Won’t Follow Your Process? Do This!
3. Clarify Roles in Your Team by Getting Feedback
It’s a good idea to openly communicate with your team to test your thinking when you’re trying to fix unclear roles and responsibilities. You might have noticed conflict, frustration or uncertainty in your team to prompt the conversation.
If you feel like your team members need to clarify their roles, then it’s likely they feel the same.
Ask your team members for feedback and see whether they feel the uncertainty that you do. Some team members will stay silent even when they feel confused, so it can be useful to bring the confusion out into the open.
Remember: if the roles in your team don’t seem clear to you, then they probably aren’t clear to others either. Be sure to ask questions and clarify your understanding.
Once you clarify the unclear roles and responsibilities, everyone can do their jobs well. This will improve performance, result in greater job satisfaction and reduce frustration and conflict.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #35: How to Create Open Communication in Your Team.
4. Clarify Unclear Roles and Responsibilities by Maintaining Oversight
When we don’t have a clear idea of what our teams are working on, things can get confusing. Make sure you’re able to track the work of your team.
This may be using a system or even a simple spreadsheet. Whatever you choose, be sure you can monitor progress and keep an eye on the work happening in your team.
This extra visibility will help you maintain oversight of the work of the team, but also help everybody have a greater understanding of what others are doing.
Try also meeting with your team frequently and discussing their current workload. This can be a great way to spot unclear roles and responsibilities, where there may be overlaps between team members or even other teams.
The starting point to fixing unclear roles and responsibilities is knowing they exist, so make sure you have the right oversight of the work in your team!
Learn More: How to Get Comfortable Without Controlling Leadership.
5. Clarify Roles and Responsibilities By Communicating Them Clearly
It’s important that roles and responsibilities are clear within your team. That should be a top priority.
Next, it’s important to ensure that important stakeholders also understand the situation. Important stakeholders often include your own boss, and your colleagues who lead other teams.
I’ve seen many leaders come unstuck when their boss is not aware of a team’s roles and responsibilities. They may communicate the wrong information to others and confuse the situation.
Or worse, they may ask your people to perform tasks that aren’t aligned with the roles and responsibilities you’ve set out.
What Can Happen When the Boss Is Out of Alignment
Here’s a real-life example that I’ve seen happen in a busy workplace.
Sam has recently worked to clarify the roles and responsibilities in her team. The team understand the situation and are comfortable with the new arrangements.
Sam’s boss, Alex, isn’t aware of the adjustments that Sam has made to the team roles. In conversation with another senior leader, Alex promises that someone in Sam’s team can take on some additional workload to help out.
This new work is not aligned to the revised roles and responsibilities, creating confusion and uncertainty in the team.
There are a few things going on in this situation, and you might think “Why is Alex promising things about Sam’s team?”
I agree, it shouldn’t happen that way. But sometimes it does, and that’s why you need to keep the boss in the loop, so they understand the situation.
I’ve Clarified the Roles and Responsibilities. Why Are People Still Complaining?
Sometimes you will clarify roles and responsibilities in your team, and people will still be unhappy. You will create a RACI and set expectations but you’ll still see conflict. People might even continue to ask for clarity about roles.
Creating a RACI matrix or using a task tracking system does not automatically fix your team problems! If this is a recurring issue in your team or organisation, there is a good chance that bigger problems are at play.
In my experience, constant fighting about roles and responsibilities happens for a few reasons:
- People are scared of being blamed for something
- People feel threatened about job security
- Someone is not happy with the work that they are undertaking
- People are struggling to perform their roles, due to lack of skills or experience
- Stakeholders lack trust that the people assigned to do the work can actually do the job; or
- There is a power struggle at play. Someone wants to own more of the work than they currently do.
You might need to have some difficult conversations to set expectations and work through the issues. Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” solution!
Don’t rely on a process, system or tool to fix your people problems. This is the job of leadership.
I just stumbled on this blog on leadership and got so challenged with the enriching insight on leadership clarification that make team development fulfilling. Thank you
Thank you very much for your comment – I appreciate it.
And I’m glad you are getting some value from the posts!
Really good stuff; brief and clear
Thanks for the comment Richard, appreciate it.
I found your article very useful. Thank you!
Within our firm, our roles and responsibilities have become blurred/confused. Our president has often assigned responsibilities to people based on their competence and trustworthiness, but these responsibilities have come to be outside out the departments as we’ve grown.
We are looking to have someone come and help us clear up who should be doing what, and prepare job descriptions that all the invested parties agree to and will be kept accountable to.
Do you know what the name of the service and the title of the consultant are that we’re looking for?
It sounds to me like you’re looking for an Organizational Development Consultant. Generally they have skills and experience relating to Human Resource management, organizational structures and capability development. The mixture of those three domains should be able to help you.
Thanks for your comment and good luck on clarifying your situation!
I’ve been struggling with being in a role that is unclear to me and my peers. Thank you so much for this article! It’s very insightful and will help me start a conversation with my boss on taking steps to resolve this.
You are welcome – I hope you make some progress to clarify your situation!
Great article – thank you! For several years, our team was very demotivated, conflicts between team members were the “normal” and turnover was way higher than for the rest of the company (great company, btw!). We kept saying we needed “swimlanes/job descriptions and roles clarified but our manager said she did not want to “confine” us. Recently she left the company and wow – what a difference – within a few weeks we had clarified our roles and responsibilities, gotten expectations from upper management clarified and have a highly motivated, excited, quickly developing team! Clarification of roles and responsibilities is critical – possibly more impactful than raises or bonuses! We’ve completed the “RA” part of the chart on our own, but I love the RACI chart for us to continue to improve the clarity of our multi-faceted projects and responsibilities, so will definitely use that as a next step for our team – thank you!
Thanks for sharing your experience Faye.
Roles and responsibilities are a really important foundation. Once they are in place and people start to become comfortable with how the team is working, I usually find that everyone relaxes and becomes more collaborative, helping each other get the work done rather than arguing over the RACI :)
So use the RACI to set a basic foundation, but then don’t be scared of flexing roles a little when you need to!
The RACI is a great tool – I love that you are clear regarding the fact that there should be only one accountable party. I have seen this mistake many times. Clarity saves so much time – as long as we communicate!
Thank you, Sir Ben for the selfless sharing of these valuable thoughts on leadership and management. Indeed, these are helping us your colleagues. God bless.
You are welcome Ruth
This is a super helpful blog post. Thank you!
You are welcome Anne, glad it is useful. Thanks for the comment!
You are amazing this is really helpful! Can I follow you on socmed?
Thanks J – yes my social media links are at the top of the site :)