Why Role Clarity Should Be a Key Focus in Your Organization - And How to Improve It
You've hired some of the hottest talent in your industry, invested in your onboarding processes, prioritized employee wellbeing, and developed a company culture to be proud of. But something's missing!
Does it feel like your employees are confused about what they're supposed to be doing?
Perhaps you're noticing arguments between colleagues, or they're dropping balls because no one realized they were responsible for a critical business task.
These are all top signs your employees are lacking role clarity.
🔍 What is role clarity?
Role clarity takes stress and confusion out of the equation. Providing your employees with absolute certainty about their main tasks at work and offering context shows how their individual responsibilities fit into your organization's bigger picture.
These specific responsibilities might include:
When role clarity is flawless, expect an employee to know their own objectives, what their colleagues' roles involve, and how they mesh together for business success. Like cogs in a wheel!
Jordann M. Andrusiak, Advisor & Director of Business Solutions, at Synergy Capital Solutions explains,
"Clarity is a crucial element in the organization, and organization is the foundation of business. By emphasizing clarity, employees see how their work contributes to the greater good of the company to encourage improved performance."
⁉️ What is role ambiguity?
In contrast, role ambiguity is what happens when an employee has a lack of clarity about their job.
And it's more common than you think, with only 60% of employees strongly agreeing they have clear expectations about their role. When performance goals and accountability are constantly shifting, this leaves plenty of room for confusion.
Role ambiguity can occur in businesses old, new, and of any size. At the newbie end of the scale, startups with fluid workflows often have an "all hands on deck" approach to roles as they fast-track the growth of their new business.
But existing companies don't have it easy either — confusion develops when there's pressure to scale and innovate.
Some of the downsides of role confusion include:
- Overlapping tasks - having two or more employees producing the same work is a role conflict and a waste of resources.
- Miscommunication - large, distributed teams often suffer from communication problems and unclear directions, which role clarity can alleviate.
- Friction between co-workers- passing the buck from one person to another or onto a different department is common when there's a lack of alignment. Transparency about roles will increase trust amongst colleagues.
❗️ Why does role clarity matter?
In some work situations, role clarity can be a matter of life and death. Naga Siddharth, Vice President of HR for Supr Daily, discusses how pilots need to have absolute role clarity when they're flying.
"Life literally depends on their work. Each of them knows what to do, how to do and when to do it. There is a call out "my aircraft" when the pilot in control takes over, and the other pilot responds "your aircraft" to confirm. No instances of, "but I thought,...."
This model relies on a seamless handover from one colleague to the next to ensure the task is completed smoothly, with zero chance of failure. But when the stakes aren't as high as a plane crash, what are the benefits of role clarity in a traditional business?
Role clarity in the workplace creates greater employee engagement, which keeps your team happy in their work.
In fact, this study by the International Journal of Service Industry Management demonstrates the relationship between role clarity and improved job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and customer service quality.
A true reminder that investing in role clarity is a win-win for your organization.
On the other hand, lack of role clarity is 1 of the top 5 reasons employees suffer from work-related stress or burnout. Mayo Clinic agrees, citing job burnout as the result of unclear job expectations.
"If you're unclear about the degree of authority you have or what your supervisor or others expect from you, you're not likely to feel comfortable at work."
During The Great Resignation, it's been critical for companies to keep hold of their top talent. And we know 94% of employees will stay longer at a company if it invests in their growth. So, why not make it easier for your employees to remain loyal to your organization by:
- outlining their current role
- predicting what their role will look like in the future
- enabling them to follow a defined career progression path?
👩 Why is role clarity important in teams?
As a classic role clarity example, let's look at how teamwork is integral in sport.
In a World Cup-winning football team, each national player must get used to playing a different role than at league level. Each star must have crystal clear role expectations about their position in attack, defense, or supporting the mid-field.
The team's main objective is to score goals and win the match. But on an individual level, the players know to trust their teammates implicitly and decide when to keep the ball themselves or pass it to a stronger player in a better position.
It's no surprise this role clarity creates the precise harmony required in successful workforces.
Need another example?
In 2014, Steve Yzerman selected a team of league all-stars for the Canadian Men's Olympic Ice Hockey team, but he assigned their roles based on "positional need, player style, and teamwork", putting aside their individual successes.
By giving each of these stars clarity about their new positions on the national side, Canada beat Sweden by 3-0 to win a Gold medal in the tournament.
📏 How do you measure role clarity?
Role clarity is a process that can integrate easily with employee onboarding to support your new hires in getting to know their new job.
But when your team members have been working with you for years, their idea of what each job role entails can be firmly embedded.
So, how do you measure whether lack of role clarity is an issue with existing employees?
Here are 2 role clarity strategies:
- Distributing a simple role clarity questionnaire
- Running a role clarity exercise such as the Acid Test.
1. How to create a role clarity questionnaire
Submit a role clarity survey to your entire team or organization to see whether role clarity is secure or needs to be improved.
Ask your employees to respond to the following statements with: Strongly disagree, disagree, neither agree nor disagree, agree or strongly agree.
Submit to your entire organization to gain a flavor of whether role clarity exists. If you're looking for general, honest feedback, ask your employees to fill in the questionnaire anonymously.
But if you need granular insights about the specific areas of your business lacking role clarity, collect names and job titles too.
2. How to create a role clarity exercise: the Acid Test
Business trainer and coach Mike Clark explains the Acid Test will "check that everybody knows who they're meant to be reporting to, who reports to them, but more than that, to also be clear on what people are meant to be doing in their role: why are people employed?"
The test works by asking each employee to write down the three to five key tasks they're employed to achieve within the role. You'll check these responsibilities to see how they compare with your three to five role characteristics.
"What I often find is that the first thing, the main reason they're employed is normally pretty clear. By about the third one, we're beginning to get a bit gray, and the chances of having the reasons totally aligning often just doesn't quite match. If you want to leverage the strength of your team, be clear on their role."
📈 How to improve role clarity
Zavvy's employee growth solutions support organizations in creating relevant competency frameworks and clarifying roles. Each role is clearly defined and assigned a seniority level, so there are no doubts about what each employee and their colleagues are responsible for.
"Establishing role clarity is easy when you prepare for it.Like any other process in the organization, role clarification must be well-thought-out. It cannot just be a verbal briefing explaining employees' roles.
It should be based on in-depth written materials. So always provide broad job descriptions with details of the position.
You can also include the tasks of other team members, thus showing where the lines are. Ensure this information is always available to your employees." Nina Pączka, Community Manager of My Perfect Resume
Tip: Use the results of your role clarity questionnaire and Acid Test to help define the roles within your company.
1. Create competency-based role descriptions
Achieve high role clarity by defining employees' competencies and including them on role cards to eliminate confusion.
A well-thought-out role card will detail precisely what skills and capabilities are needed and how the work should be done.
The best practice is for HR to involve industry experts in these tasks to create relevant competency frameworks.
For example, in a data scientist role, you wouldn't expect HR to understand the intricate details of this technical role – instead, they should reach out to professionals who do.
2. Define employee focus areas
Within the employee growth cycle, team members are encouraged to participate in defining their own focus areas. How can they achieve this?
Why not take inspiration from Upstart's CEO Dave Girouard, who considers #WWYRD, or what would your replacement do? He explains:
"Another mental exercise I've invested in is thinking about what would happen if tomorrow my board got together and fired me. What if they said, "Dave, thank you for playing. You're done. And they went out and found the very best CEO in the world, one who would just make me look like a fool? What would she do differently than what I'm doing? I think about that for a while and then I tell myself, "Why the hell aren't you doing those things?"
3. Use career progression framework templates
With competencies, role card templates, and focus areas in place, this forms the foundation of your career progression framework templates. Managers can monitor and support an employee development plan which will display the individual's progress and completion rate.
Your career progression framework will outline:
- The roles across your organization
- The roles each team member can progress to
- What they need to achieve to move along their progression path
➡️ Check out these sample career progression models to get inspired.
When to provide role clarity?
"Many team leaders have found themselves saying, "We'll figure it out" when it comes to hiring people they want on their team, but hiring without clarity on what a role entails is a big mistake. Get clear on what you need, create the job description, and then hire." Tom Ferry, Real Estate Coach
Knowing when to define role clarity in your organization can be complex. Visit and revisit this area regularly as your structure and processes evolve.
So when is the right time to provide role clarity?
- During recruitment - at this super early stage, attract the right candidates with clear role definitions. Distribute these in your job ads or promote them throughout the application process.
- During onboarding - help your new employee understand their role and how it fits into the overall structure of your organization.
- During performance reviews - role clarity should be revisited as part of your employees growth plan. Doublecheck your employee's expectations still align with the company and highlight any changes to the role.
- Restructuring - from redundancies to acquisitions, make sure each employee understands their exact responsibilities if there is any type of structural change in your line-up.
- Succession planning - if you've identified a candidate with a bright future at your company, provide clarity about the progression framework they're following between now and their eventual succession. This may include promotions and lateral moves.
How to create role clarity in hybrid teams
So, let's address the elephant in the room: remote working. Even if you've had a reasonable level of clarity in your office-based business, the lines can blur when you shift to a remote or hybrid work environment. The hybrid model is relatively new to many organizations, and there's still a degree of 'figuring it out' to be done in the virtual workplace.
"Clarity is one of the most powerful indicators of success in today's organizations, especially as they become increasingly distributed." Erica Keswin, author of "Bring Your Human to Work."
Role ambiguity can also happen in communication - when you have half a team in a co-working space and the other half distributed around the world, whose job is it to keep projects on track?
Support role clarity in a hybrid setting by creating a directory of role cards, including a clear communication structure. This should clearly highlight:
- who each team member is
- who they report to
- the tasks they're responsible for.
This transparency also helps eliminate biases that creep in towards office-based employees who meet face to face.
➡️ A shortcut to establishing role clarity in your organization
Still not sure whether role clarity exists in your business?
Look to your employees to find the answer. Follow strategies such as role clarity exercises and interviews to evaluate how much employees understand about their tasks and responsibilities. Then respond appropriately by creating role cards, defining competencies, and developing a career progression framework your team members will be excited by.
Itching to get started? Use this people development software to improve role clarity for your entire team.