You Don’t Need “Role Clarity”

As I work with leaders and teams undergoing change, the two most common themes that emerge, reemerge and never are quite resolved to everyone’s satisfaction are prioritization and role clarity.

Prioritization is a topic for another day.

Role clarity is the most common complaint for people working in a team environment. It is a topic that comes up over and over.

Well meaning coaches and leaders react to the complaint by putting together additional materials describing the responsibility of each role. They create more meetings and training to re-explain the expectations of each role, etc.

And yet, the complaints continue. Why?

Because the root cause of the complaint isn’t a lack of role clarity, it is a lack of alignment on a shared goal.

Imagine a sports team where each player knows and understands their position. They know where they are supposed to be, and they know what they are supposed to be doing while they’re there. This is required for a team to play effectively.

But knowing your role is necessary but not sufficient in order to play a team sport well. You must also know which game you are playing and be more focused on the goals of the overall team than you are on you individual goals, or the goals of your position.

If you are playing football/American soccer and you are in an offense role, your job is to score goals. But you can’t just sit there waiting for someone to pass the ball up the field to you. You must be an active teammate who is creating the opportunities to push the ball up the field. And you must be an active teammate who is supporting the defensive needs of the team as well.

You must know the requirements of your role, and know that your role exists within the context of a larger team of people with a shared goal.

This is where most complaints of ‘role clarity’ break down. If you are the leader of the football team and the offense player comes to you complaining that the rest of the team must not have ‘role clarity’ because they don’t realize that it is their job to pass the ball to the offense player so they can score….well, that conversation isn’t likely to go very well for that offense player. They clearly aren’t acting like they are part of a team with a shared goal. They aren’t thinking about what they can do to help the team succeed, only what they need so they can succeed as an individual.

When people truly know that they will be held accountable for the shared goal of their team as their primary measure of success, the complaints about lack of ‘role clarity’ fade away. Once people know that they are part of a team and start acting like it, they’re too busy focusing on their goal and how to help each other achieve it for role clarity to be mentioned.

The next time you hear someone lament about the lack of ‘role clarity’, dig deeper. Ensure that they and their team are playing the same game and are aligned towards the same outcomes. Once they are, you’ll be surprised how quickly the noise about ‘role clarity’ vanishes.

Caveat – if people are working on a new team in a new way and you’ve never explained their new roles and expectations, you might have a role clarity problem. However, before you assume you do, check first that there is alignment on a shared goal. If you have that and people are still struggling, you might need to focus more on role clarity. However, what I see most commonly is goal misalignment masquerading as a role clarity issue.