The danger of unclear roles and responsibilities

Unclear roles and responsibilities


Are you a leader in a workplace with unclear roles and responsibilities? Your team ends up doing lots of work, but often it’s work your team shouldn’t actually be doing.

Sometimes these situations are great. People can jump in and gain experience in varied tasks and your team members can become “go to” people in your organisation. The downside to this is that the people in your company who like to say “it’s not my job” when confronted with work, can easily try to dump that work onto your team. This situation can be improved by clarifying your team members’ job descriptions.

Why unclear roles and responsibilities can be a source of job stress

Unclear roles and responsibilities can be a source of job stress because:

  • Your team members don’t understand how they fit into the organisation, resulting in difficulty in finding that “task significance”. This is the degree to which people feel motivated due to the effect that their job has on the outside world
  • People run the risk of being lumped with work that they shouldn’t or don’t want to be doing
  • Team members find it difficult to develop the required skills. Since their jobs are not well defined, nor are the skills that are needed.

In your head, you know what your team should be doing, but there is a good chance that other people in the organisation don’t have that same idea. This means that clarifying your team members’ job descriptions is of great importance!

Why unclear roles and responsibilities often exist in projects and organisations

Different parties aren’t communicating properly

If you have clear communication between your and other teams, then it should be fairly clear what your team needs to be doing and what they don’t. In mature projects and organisations, these responsibilities are formalised and documented so that people can clearly see who needs to do what.

Upfront planning has not been thorough

“So, how many people do we need to do this project? Oh, probably about three. OK, we’ll get three people”.

But what would each of these people do? Do they need specific skills? Are each of them required for the same duration, or do you need different people throughout the project?

Failing to adequately plan work results in ambiguity about the roles required and their respective tasks. This in turn results in poor morale for those people who were hired with the expectation that they would do X, only to find that they need to be doing Y (or X + Y!).

This also means that a person’s CV might say that they were an [X Job Title], but they weren’t actually performing that role and therefore their experience is not as extensive in that area as it could or should be. I’ve seen plenty of situations where people have had a job title that really doesn’t match what they have been doing day to day.

How to go about clarifying job descriptions

1. Clarifying job descriptions by finding the gaps

Write down the tasks you think your team members should be performing as part of their role. Now write down the tasks that they actually are performing. Is there a substantial difference? The difference includes the gaps between their perceived and actual role.

For each of the gaps – identify who you think should be performing the work. Remember also that gaps might occur where you think your team member should be performing a task but it is actually being performed by somebody else.

If the extent of the gaps is large, or the gaps are resulting in job stress or dissatisfaction, then you should look at making a change – using your gaps list as the basis.

2. Clarifying job descriptions by developing a RACI

As a leader, consider clarifying your team members’ job descriptions by developing a RACI matrix to define the roles in the team.

R = Responsible (doing the work)
A = Accountable (will be ultimately held accountable for the work)
C = Consulted (should be consulted for input)
I = Informed (should be informed of the outcome or progress of the work, but needn’t be consulted).

Put a list of the tasks on the top, and the people or roles on the left – this results in a grid. In each cell in the grid, you need to put one or more of the RACI letters, where appropriate. For more information, see this post for a nice overview.

Putting tasks in this matrix structure and communicating it to your team and other relevant people sets a baseline for what each person is doing. If you get this formally approved then this can be useful, but often broad agreement is enough to be helpful.

3. Clarifying your job description by communicating properly

This point involves simply communicating with your team to validate your thinking with regard to their roles. If you feel like your team members need to clarify their job descriptions, then it’s likely others feel the same.

Remember: if you don’t consider yourself to be an idiot and the roles in your team don’t seem clear to you, then they probably aren’t clear to others either. So be sure to ask questions and clarify your understanding.

So go and start clearing up the unclear roles and responsibilities, so that everyone can do their jobs well. This will improve performance, result in greater job satisfaction and reduce the ability for others to avoid doing their work. Good luck!

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