Organizational life can be confusing, what with changes in job roles or organizational structure, turnover in management or peers, or even the positive circumstance of company growth. But in too many companies, middle managers are expressing 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. Why would this be happening, and what can be done about it?
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. When we don’t feel prepared or trained to do the job that’s expected of us, it can feel less personally threatening to believe that they must not have told us what they really want and mean, since we don’t know how to do it.
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 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, particularly when decision-makers can’t come to a shared understanding, management tries to legislate detailed work agreements, or the leadership regulates the nits and grits of appropriate conversation and what topics and distribution lists may be included in memos.
Who Needs Role Clarity?
The truth about role clarity is that 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, or you’re paid by work unit, the 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 have to keep asking for role clarity, and you’re not a frontline worker or a direct supervisor — 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.”
What needs to be 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 staff is directed and measured.
But when senior managers and executives complain about lack of clarity, they typically 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. Or they don’t know how to work collaboratively with their peers based on their own influence and standing.
Onward and upward,