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Team Performance: Clear Roles and Processes

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

Try not to fall asleep. Roles and responsibilities and discussion of operations can sound like a real snooze. But, stick with me here. You'll find that by having clear processes, the team will excel.

What I find interesting is the investigation of why a team is not performing rarely begins by inspecting process and procedure. Rather, it often goes down like this...

Teams come to me with a request to help them manage conflict. In fact, it is most often a request to deliver training to teach people to resolve conflict (and with that is a belief that training will solve the problem).

More often, the teamwork problem has to do with unclear roles and processes which cause stress. The team’s response to stress causes them to speak and interact with each other unproductively which results in conflict.

If we correct the operational problems and clarify roles and processes, stress is reduced, and people behave better. Alas, no conflict to be resolved. If we try to remedy a situation like this with training, we waste everyone’s time.

This week’s post is all about the 3rd Essential Component to High Performing Teams: Clear Roles and Processes.

We previously covered Communication, specifically asking questions and listening. These behaviors being the bedrock of fostering a psychologically safe team. Then, we addressed Goals and how setting a clear direction for the team enables performance.

Now, it is all about operations. It doesn’t matter if a team has great communication and perfect goals, if their operations are garbage, their performance will be too.

This post addresses the importance of being “Captain Obvious” and will provide a handy process to clarify how a team solves problems.

Be Captain Obvious

I worked with a small team in a hospital clinic that set a performance goal around customer service and greeting patients. They wanted to create a warm and welcoming environment to patients and families since people sometimes feel fear or anxiety when visiting the doctor. This team was committed to greeting patients with a warm “Hello. Welcome. How can I help you today?” within 10 seconds of the patient’s arrival. The team agreed to this particular greeting (and the tone that can’t quite be conveyed in writing) and the timing of it. They were excited to move forward with executing on this goal.

After two weeks, a satisfaction survey came back with low scores in service. The comment on the survey stated the patient stood in the office lobby with her elderly mother for at least 3 minutes before the two people behind the desk noticed her. She stated she had to cough to get their attention.

The manager was stunned. What happened?

After reviewing what was going on at the front desk that week, the root of the issue became clear. When defining this goal, they had not determined what would happen when there are two or more people at the front desk working on a project.

Neither employee greeted the patient in these circumstances. Each employee thought the other would and this left the patient ignored upon arrival.

If we were the manager of the hospital clinic team, it would be easy to feel annoyed.

One could say “It’s clear! Just greet the patient.” But when it comes to roles and responsibilities, being obvious becomes very important to consistent execution.

There are many leaders who resist this and say “Just get it done. It doesn’t matter who does it.” Yet, taking the important time to clarify who does what when, will not only provide certainty for the team but also yield a consistent result.

Be Captain Obvious. Get really clear on who does what when. Some leaders fear it will sound insulting to get to that level of detail and if that is the case, be transparent. For example, “Hey. I don’t want to sound insulting, I just want to make sure we are all on the same page. Who exactly will execute the weekly report and how will we know that work was performed?”

This clarity will ensure consistency and that is what every team needs to perform. What is particularly important is if the team cannot determine the specificity on their own, that the leader step and do that. While it may seem simple and self-explanatory to determine roles and processes, some teams benefit from the leader stepping to make that call.

In the case of our hospital clinic team, they corrected the problem by simply identifying the primary and secondary person on duty at any time. The primary was always responsible for the greeting. If the primary was busy, the secondary stepped up to make sure the patient felt welcomed.

Team Problem-solving

We identified the importance of clarity in operations, such as how the work the team is tasked to complete gets done. However, it is also important for something like problem solving. Many teams lack a clearly defined process for resolving problems. Here is one I have employed many times in past leadership roles.

Early in my career I was fortunate to work on a technology project team responsible for implementing company-wide software. This team had rigor. We didn’t do anything without a clearly defined process and I learned the benefits quickly.

Six weeks into the project, issues came up. Big issues. And without clear definition on how to handle the issues, we would dump them on our boss. We essentially, though not literally, said “Here. You deal with it.” Our leader, Kim, was a highly skilled project manager and quickly defined the Issue Statement. She employed an issue resolution process that required of us the following:

  1. Draft or document the issue in an email to her, explaining it briefly.

  2. Describe at least three but no more than six options to resolve the issue with no more than three pros and three cons for each. The first option was to always to do nothing. This challenged us to evaluate the urgency of the issue.

  3. Recommend an option.

Kim would not entertain the issue unless it was drafted to her in an email in this format.

At first, it felt cumbersome. However, the ultimate results of instituting this process were valuable.

First, this reduced the number of issues on Kim’s desk. A big win for her. Second, our team found ways to solve the issues or reduce the urgency of the issues independently. Third, the problems that warranted the Issue Statement were the issues worth spending the most time to resolve. Fourth, every decision was documented. So, if the same problem popped up six months later (and sometimes it did), we went back to the Issue Statement for guidance.

Teams benefit from this clear definition of how to resolve an issue because it takes the emotion and stress out of the problem when it is identified. Then, it provides a clear path forward. Most workplace problems create stress because of a lack of certainty of what to do next. Having a process in place takes away that uncertainty.

Teams with clear roles and clear processes will perform better. It will require extra time to define these processes and gain agreement. However, it will prove to be time well spent.

Next week

No team has existed without conflict. The problem is when it turns toxic, the team becomes really unproductive. The 4th Essential Component is Productive Conflict. The highest performing teams’ welcome disagreement with open arms and have a process in place to handle it. Get this, productive team conflict is good!

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leadership and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm.


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