Eliminate ambiguity by clarifying roles and responsibilities in the workplace

Coworkers in Berlin - Image by Deskmag for Wikipedia creative commons
Coworkers in Berlin - Image by Deskmag for Wikipedia creative commons

WASHINGTON, February 26, 2014 –   Have you ever experienced complete frustration at work due to unclear roles and responsibilities?  Maybe you haven’t defined it as such, but let me provide you with several examples of problems that occur in the office due to unclear roles and responsibilities:

  1. Two employees perform the same tasks independently and then learn that they have duplicated each other’s work
  2. One employee handles all aspects of a task and then another employee or supervisor asks for it to be repeated, explained or they become involved in the task mid-stream
  3. Two employees are talking to the same client about the same issues and it feels embarrassing to the employees when they call because they did not know the topic had already been discussed
  4. Two employees send a customer an email on the same topic but with slightly different opinions about how to proceed
  5. A supervisor double-checks every task performed by a subordinate employee at the lowest level of detail
  6. One employee believes he has performed a task as requested but finds out it was done incorrectly or that he did not meet expectations of his supervisor

These types of problems occur when employees are unclear about their roles and responsibilities.  It becomes particularly difficult when a supervisor does not “give up” the tasks she assigned to her subordinate.  In some cases, it is difficult for supervisors to let go.

These problems can be easily solved with a one to one conversation in a meeting entitled “clarifying roles and responsibilities.”  This conversation should be used to discuss the specific roles of each employee and clarify who is to do what task.  This usually solves the problem, but there are times when it does not.

Communication will not solve the problem when a person stubbornly holds onto a role that belongs to another.  It also fails to solve the problem if two people disagree about who should perform the specific role.

At this point, a third party must enter the conversation to provide clarification and expectations about each employee’s assignments.

At this juncture, it is important to eliminate emotion from the situation.  It is very common for employees to become possessive, jealous, controlling, condescending, back-stabbing, etc. when they are fighting for a role or responsibility they want or think belongs to them.

To truly fix the problem, employees must rethink the situation and ask, “What does it take for the two people with role ambiguity to win?”  If they prioritize the important tasks and share them, then both employees can win.  If one employee sets out to win and sets up the other to lose, then the situation will continue to decline.  The work quantity and quality will decrease.

In rare instances, an entire work group lacks role clarity.  In that case, a manager must step up to the plate and define each person’s role or team productivity will decline rapidly.

When there is substantial role ambiguity, guess who loses?  Everyone.  The employees who are involved in the role confusion become dissatisfied.  The customers become confused about the service or products they are receiving.  The leaders of the team see motivation decline.  Productivity declines and with it, income.

Clarify roles and responsibilities today and your work product will improve immediately.

This week’s prescription:  Create a win-win for all

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Twitter: @CassieLFields

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Dr. Cassi Fields has provided expert opinion on career and workplace issues for nationally recognized media outlets including Forbes, TheStreet TV, MSNBC.com, FOX News Live, US News & World Report, Recruiter.com, WUSA9, News Channel 8, HR.com, and more. Dr. Fields, who received her Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from George Washington University, lives in Maryland and Florida with her husband and two children.