The Constancy of Role Definitions

Do role definitions serve as guide-rails or become blinkers? How tight or constant should be the role definitions? How much flexibility is too much? These are some of the questions which most organizations grapple with. On one end, there could be a small start-up where everyone does everything, and on the other end a large monolith where role boundaries are so sacrosanct, that they become limiting.

People with task mindset tend to prefer clarity in their role definitions, while people with outcome mindset prefer flexibility to do what is required to create the desired outcome. Over a period of time, the reverse also becomes true. If we define the roles sharply, the organization culture will tend to move towards task mindset and eventually people with straitjacket thinking may be the ones who are most successful in the organization. But if the organization is aspiring for Digital transformation and looking at disruptive innovation, then loosely defined roles may provide the required flexibility.  

From the perspective of discovering and utilizing human potential, organizations must provide a variety of experiences to people. This in a tight role definition context, will come only from role change. But a loosely defined role may provide the required variety as people transcend the blurred boundaries while dealing with challenges.

Tight role definitions often also mean that the definition of success and failure is also sharply defined. This may inculcate fear of failure and make people risk averse. But providing an exploratory space between success and failure may bring out the innovative best of people.

How do we make people comfortable with loosely defined roles? Some of them may have a higher need for clarity and they may struggle with such flexibility. Along with the role definitions, the whole trinity of Goal-Role-Task needs to be loosely defined. Such an organization will also need a higher level of empowerment, which allows people to flex whenever required.  

While some roles may lend themselves more than others for a loose definition, but it may not be a good idea to have some roles loosely defined and others tightly defined. This sends confusing signals to people and interferes in bringing about the desired organization culture. Tight or loose role definitions is an important aspect in building the organizational culture.

Organizations which have had tight role definitions and having realized its limitations, are now keen to move to the other side, need to plan the transition carefully. Encouraging people to blur the boundaries will be an important part of the communication. Leading by example and recognizing the new behavior will be critical in the transition. Eventually, discouraging the old behavior can send the message home.

The journey begins at the top, are the leaders comfortable with such flexibility? This journey is certainly uncomfortable but paves the way for growth.