“Life is a blur when one is essaying different roles; it is so fulfilling.” - Amitabh Bachchan

One challenge that often comes up for people managers in leadership development interactions is role ambiguity or confusion with respect to the scope of their responsibilities in their jobs.

A person experiences role clarity in their job when they know what they need to do and what is expected of them. The details of their deliverables, processes, stakeholders, and priorities are all clear, and the employee is aware of their role within the organisation. On the other end of the scale, role ambiguity occurs these details are unclear.

In this rapidly moving dynamic and connected global economy, new businesses are constantly evolving and existing businesses are under pressure to innovate and re-invent themselves. The effect of this is that jobs and job roles are changing at a frantic pace. Companies are expected to meet and embrace these changes, but often without any consideration of what the new role expectations are for employees.

Many companies assume that their employees understand how their roles directly effect the success of the company. What then, is the likely outcome if those roles are not well defined or not defined at all and the responsibilities and accountabilities are unclear?

Without clear role descriptions employees end up wasting their energies understanding their roles within their teams rather than focusing on their productive tasks. They often get involved in unnecessary politics and turf wars.

However, in the real world, there is always some role ambiguity most people experience. While it would be great to be clear on what your role demands or expects of you it is important to get comfortable with role ambiguity. That is the demand of good leadership skills. In the VUCA (Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous) world we live in, things are moving faster than ever before, the ability to manoeuvre through ambiguity is a powerful and desired leadership skill.

Lower role clarity in organizations may indicate higher degree of freedom and autonomy if it is an intentional and deliberate component of the culture. If it is on purpose, it means that people are given the charter to lead in whichever way they see fit. They are trusted with making the right calls and taking decisions. It empowers them, improving engagement indirectly. It is important to note though, that in a country like India with an education system which has encouraged a “tell me and I will follow attitude” a major part of the population does feel more comfortable with certainty. There is a lot of discomfort when such people are given a free reign. They are so used to structure that they don’t know how to operate without it or design it for themselves and their teams.

However, often role ambiguity exists because the leaders have been unable to put in time and resources to define and communicate the scope of the roles. Sometimes the leaders try to educate people on their roles but employees are unable to comprehend it.

Hence, there are two parts to it, good leaders learn the skills to be comfortable with ambiguous role definitions by asking the right questions at the right time from the appropriate stakeholders. They assess the people and environment around them and make accurate judgement calls, and reach out for support and mentorship as and when required. However, by learning about defining and executing role clarity well they can manage people in a more productive fashion. A great leader will however throw in a little mix of intentional ambiguity to challenge and groom their teams.

So how do well-defined roles increase productivity? Collaboration improves when roles are clearly defined and well understood. Teams thrive when people feel their roles have clear well established boundaries that lets them do a significant portion of their work independently.

The Benefits of Clear Role Descriptions

1. Employee Engagement

  • Provides clear role accountability and ownership
  • Reduces confusion by eliminating unintentional job overlap
  • Defines how the role fits within the larger picture and how it intersects with other roles, functions and teams
  • Improves collaboration by providing a non-threatening space for people to work independently and creatively

2. Recruiting and Attracting Talent

  • It is becoming very important to hire strategically. It prevents a lot of losses and pains down the road
  • Clearly defined roles ensure that the position is well defined and understood by the business and by the potential employee
  • It can be used in assisting the recruiting process by asking the right interview questions
  • It gives faith to the potential employee that the business is structured and organized with a plan thus attracting good talent

3. Performance Management

  • Defines what the expected performance in the role should look like
  • Makes it easier to measure and manage performance
  • Helpful in counselling employees through conflicts and other issues

4. Innovation

  • Facilitates the sharing of stories about why a company does the things it does, in the way that they do them
  • Promotes the capture of ideas on how to improve current processes so they are more effective in the future

5. Career development

  • Provides a clearer base for managing career pathing and succession planning
  • Supports the notion that the role is part of a long-term career, rather than just a placeholder for a job
  • Easier to establish the networks available to the employee for advice and mentoring

6. Handovers, induction & learning and development (L&D)

  • Provides clear guidelines for the organization’s culture, values and purpose
  • Gives a valuable reference for handovers assisting in introducing the new role recipient to the complete picture of all their tasks
  • Helps estimate and plan structured development and training required for performing that role
  • Easily creates objectives to assess the performance of new hires within a short period

The more one can embrace role ambiguity and drive themselves and their teams through it, the better leaders they can become in the current corporate environment. It is equally important to use resources, time and planning to define roles well and give that clarity to your people. More than role clarity or ambiguity, if an individual looks at what it is that they can do to serve their own interests while serving the interests of their teams and the organization, and get a sense of their role through that lens it will be a win-win for all.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Fortune India

Bhavna Dalal  
Bhavna Dalal  

The author is the founder and CEO of Talent Power Partners a global Leadership Development company based in Bangalore. She is a Leadership Development Specialist, an ICF Certified Executive Coach [PCC] and author of the book Team Decision Making.

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