“Where is my Lane?”

How many of us have experienced, or heard from others, any of the following sentiments?

“I have no idea why they hired me or what they want me to be doing.”
“I have 3 bosses, each of whom have a different agenda of what they want me to do.”
“I keep butting heads with folks in the other department who want to do my job…”

One of the more frequent and frustrating challenges that I’ve observed both as an employee and as an executive coach is around role clarity. The increasingly complex pace, internal structure, and change within business today often results in a number of “grey areas.” It is tough to know where one employee’s responsibilities begin and another one’s end, and is particularly common in decentralized, matrixed-based organizations. In everyday parlance, the typical question often heard is, “What is my lane?” Lack of clarity around roles & responsibilities can have a direct impact on productivity, efficiency & morale. Here is a quick summary of the symptoms, underlying causes, and three ways to cure this painful ailment.

Common Symptoms

  • Confusion: Despite being given a beautifully articulate job description and undergoing an extensive onboarding process, you have an employee that continues to ask questions regarding what s/he “owns” and with whom s/he should be working (or not working). This lack of certainty as it relates to an employee’s place within the “system” results in an employee who regularly asks for permission and direction, instead of a fully functional employee helping you solve your business’ problems.
  • Conflict: The employee is observed regularly butting heads with others in the organization, particularly in regards to specific activities or topics. The manager of the employee will start to receive feedback that their employee is “difficult to work with.”
  • Lack of Focus & Results: The employee appears to be highly distracted and jumping from task to task. While many things are started, few of the most important are not completed.

Likely Underlying Causes

Although the root of the symptoms can be varied, you must ask yourself if they are due to a deeper underlying structural issue, namely: Does the employee know where the role starts and ends? As often happens, someone’s role on paper is not what he/she is dealing with in reality. So what are the potential causes?

  • Lack of role definition & differentiation (especially in relation to other roles) – All too often, a role may be defined without clarity around specific “ownership,” particularly in relation to other roles throughout the organization. Take, for example, the classic challenge of two marketing roles – one within the corporate HQ that leads global brand standards and one that leads a regional marketing and is tasked with translating the brand on a local/regional level. Who gets to make the call can get very messy. Add in bigger organizational changes involving shifting whole departments or mergers & acquisitions, and it can get even more complicated.
  • Lack of understanding – In some cases, the role and responsibilities may be crystal clear, but there may be a legitimate lack of understanding due to communication gaps. This often happens when the pace of business is so fast that there isn’t time to properly onboard the employee or it is an “all hands on deck” culture.
  • Lack of support – Many organizations lack a process or methodology to ensure the manager (or team leader) is able to support the employee to navigate these complex issues.
  • Lack of decision making governance – all too often, an organization has not clearly defined and communicated who ultimately does have the final say. In a committee structure, it is often unclear if the final decision will be made via majority, consensus or escalated to a higher group or individual. If it is made by a final individual (e.g. the CEO), it is often not clear what process will be used to enable him / her make the call.

The Cure

  • Provide Laser-Sharp Role Clarity – As described in the popular “R.A.S.C.I.” responsibility methodology, it is critical to ensure that the role can be defined clearly in terms of who is ultimately Responsible, Accountable, Supportive, Consultative & Informed. (For more information, check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Responsibility_assignment_matrix). All too often, particularly in matrix-based environments, two or more individuals believe they own the exact same role in relation to a particular activity. Similarly, a leader may be told they “own” an initiative, but have no control over the people, budgets or processes needed to execute against it. Leaders are often encouraged to leverage “influence without direct authority,” which is often a recipe for disaster. Key questions to help guide clarity include, “What is the ONE, most important area of focus for this role that no one else owns?” Second is, “What things should this role NOT focus on?”
  • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – It is crucial that the manager and employee meet on a regular basis, not just to talk about the day-to-day fire drills, but more importantly, to discuss the extent to which the employee clearly understands what the overall “mission” is, their role in it and what resources are available to support him/her. This is ESPECIALLY crucial if roles are changing due to organizational shifts. It is critical that the manager ask questions such as, “What one thing can I do to ensure that you can continue to be successful in this position?” More often that not, the issue at hand will involve empowering the individual in relation to those around him / her in other roles.
  • Demonstrate Commitment – When challenges around role clarity occur, and they undoubtedly will, the key is to demonstrate commitment through regular review and adjustment. This is particularly important within a context of a changing environment, where roles may get blurry often. Where grey areas appear, the key is that the manager and employee should discuss, identify the appropriate change (if needed), and create an action plan to get there. In some cases, this may require higher levels of management to be informed and approve of the plan.

Although defining roles and responsibilities can often be a grey area, it does not have to be an unsolvable challenge. With the above techniques, clarity can be achieved and potential unleashed.