'What is my job again, exactly?'

Dr. Rebecca Schalm,

I am convinced that one of the key things getting in the way of individual, team and organizational success is a lack of role clarity. This point was reinforced last week when a meeting to help a client establish her development plan ended up being a conversation about role expectations. Or, specifically, her lack of clarity as to what, exactly, they are. “How,” she wondered, “should I decide what development objectives to set, what changes to strive to make, if I’m not sure whether they will help achieve our business goals?” Good question.

Clarifying roles
Role clarity is one of the key challenges leaders changing jobs need to tackle. But it is a problem even tenured employees can struggle with. The real problem with a lack of role clarity is that it cascades into a much bigger problem for organizations: misalignment. It is impossible for an organization to be successful when there isn’t clear alignment between its objectives and what people spend time doing.

There are two key obstacles to role clarity:

Lack of over-arching objectives: A job description is often a long list of tasks and responsibilities rather than a statement of expected outcomes people can use to prioritize and organize their efforts. An example is an administrative professional who does everything asked of him but consistently gets feedback from customers that he isn’t “doing his job”. In his eyes, fulfilling requests is his job. His customers, on the other hand, want something more: “make work life easier”. That involves anticipating needs, connecting dots, keeping track of things – not what he is focused on. There is clearly a disconnect in terms of expectations. My guess is the job description looks a lot more like the list of tasks he is doing than it does a statement of the outcomes his customers are expecting.

A fascinating example of objectives trumping tasks is online shoe company Zappos and their approach to customer service. Rather than train people to follow a set of rules and procedures for resolving customer complaints and concerns, the company has given its customer service agents a single objective: resolve the issue. How they do that is up to them. The result? More rapid complaint resolution and extraordinary levels of customer satisfaction.

Lack of communication: Simply put, people don’t spend enough time talking about the right things. There are meetings and endless conversations about emerging problems and issues, but leaders spend very little time talking about broader strategy, context, priorities and expectations. One-on-one meetings are scheduled and rescheduled, turn into abbreviated business reviews and long lists of ‘urgent issues’. When the attention is down in the details it is difficult to stay focused on what is really important.

Employees, for their part, fail to ask for clarification. They are reluctant to go to their manager and ask questions about what is expected of them. They are afraid that asking for help prioritizing activities and decisions will make them look incompetent. So they stumble along in the dark on their own.

The way to drive role clarity is relatively simple. As a manager, take time to connect job responsibilities to broader goals and objectives of the team and organization. Set expectations early, and revisit them often. Make meeting with your team members a priority; leadership shouldn’t be something you do when there isn’t anything else pressing. If it is, you might want to re-visit your own job description and expectations.

What makes a good manager?
A decade of working with leaders has taught me the only differentiating factor between managers who maintain a regular meeting schedule with employees and those who don’t is where “leading people” falls on their list of priorities. You can learn almost everything you need to know about a leader’s effectiveness by asking four questions on a 360 feedback survey: “I understand my company’s strategy and how my job helps us achieve our goals”; “I understand my job and what my manager expects of me”; “My manager and I have meaningful conversations on a regular basis”; and “My manager rarely reschedules or cancels our meetings.”

As an employee, set your ego and misgivings aside and ask questions that are troubling you. Don’t assume it is your responsibility, alone, to figure out what your job is. When in doubt, ask. And even if you think you get it, you might want to ask anyway. You might be surprised by what you hear.

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