Five causes of role unclarity

Guido Heezen

When employees aren’t sure or aware of what is expected of them, it can lead to high levels of unnecessary stress. How can this stress be prevented?

Five causes of role unclarity

When an employee survey reveals high work pressure, my first question is always: do your employees really know what is expected of them? In most cases, people are indeed unaware or uncertain of what their responsibilities are. They have been provided a job description, but prioritizing their tasks often remains a challenge, or, in some cases, the ever-changing organization goals form a source of confusion. This also creates uncertainty. People want to do a good job, but aren’t sure what they will be kept be accountable for. This too can cause employees to go into overdrive, or become less motivated.

Don’t throw your employees in at the deep-end

The moment organizations realize how this works, they can start to provide more clear role descriptions. When we return for another survey at a later moment, we usually find employees are experiencing less work pressure. The problem wasn’t the amount of work, but the fact that their role was unclear to them. Where does this unclarity come from? We have defined the five most common causes:

1. Vacillating policy

When an organization’s management is somehow disrupted, this can result in rapidly changing policies. The course will continue to change. One moment, products need to be updated, then the focus turns to reducing costs and then the organization will do everything possible to find new customer groups. This vacillating policy can cause a lot of distress. When you’re handling a speedboat, it’s ok to make some sharp turns. But as the captain of a large ship, your charted course needs be a steady one. You can’t keep pulling the rudder just because you feel like it. The larger your organization, the further you need to look into the future. If you respond to every single impulse, you will lose speed and your sailors will become confused. Agility is great, but it has its limits.

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2. Conflicting signals

Another way to completely paralyze your employees, is to send out conflicting signals. Just think of a consultant who is told to prioritize delivering the best service to clients. At the same time, you tell him that the company’s revenue needs a boost. This could be considered a double message  a message that becomes even more confusion when these tasks aren’t listed in order of priority. You can compare it to a safety-inspector saying the tiles of a swimming pool should have a non-slippery surface to prevent people from injuring themselves. At the same time, they also need to be smooth to comply with hygiene regulations. No matter what you do, you can never meet both requirements. Therefore, failure is inevitable.

3. Inexperienced employees

Another explanation for unclarity can be found in your employees’ level of experience. If you have recently hired a bunch of new people, they could still be figuring out how to operate within a complex force field. They do not know how to create the right balance between the customer’s desires, their own needs, and the organization’s interests. This uncertainty is paralyzing. Experienced employees are better equipped to deal with conflicting signals. They know how to keep customers happy and boost revenue at the same time. The key to success is to create situations where experienced employees can share their know-how with the newbies. You could organize Friday afternoon sessions for employees to freely speak their mind and ask their peers for help. They can do so by anonymously placing a piece of paper in a hat with a description of a complex case. These cases are then worked on by a group of three people.

If you discover certain patters in the needs of your employees, you can set up special programs to meet these needs. You can work with professional actors to focus on difficult clients or challenging situations and slowly but surely provide them with more role clarity. Their job could still get complex at times, but at least they will know how to deal with such complexity.

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4. Incapable management

Just because someone is really good at their job and gets a promotion, this doesn’t automatically mean make them a decent and skilled manager. A manager needs to be able to create a stable work environment, and in doing so, the manager him- or herself needs to be equally stable. Whenever that’s not the case, and he or she behaves in an unpredictable manner, this can make employees feel quite nervous. This is why it’s important to spend an appropriate amount of time on the personal development of managers.

5. A lack of feedback

Sometimes, employees just don’t know whether what they’re doing is considered right or wrong. Performance review meetings are not always the best opportunity for this matter to be discussed. The time between a potential mistake and the meeting is often too long for the advice to be of any use. A more motivating alternative would be to create a professional environment in which giving each other feedback is encouraged. People prefer to receive feedback immediately rather than once every six months.

The importance of an employee survey

Luckily, there are many ways to improve role clarity within your organization. The most important thing to do would probably be to check in with your team on a regular basis. Find out if people are experiencing high levels of work pressure, if what is expected of them is clear, and whether what it is you can do to improve the situation. An employee survey can help you assess any possible risks in time. A survey can outline the areas that require your attention, either on an individual level, based on the performance of your team or at an organizational scale. This way you are always one step ahead!