Among the teams I work with who complain of conflict and dysfunction, there is one common denominator. It is not toxic employees, bad bosses, or even low conflict resolution skills. It also doesn’t have to do with hybrid work, bad pay, or absent reward programs.
It is something overlooked, often taken for granted, and kind of boring to address: unclear roles and processes.
Did I just hear you snore?
I know. Talking about roles and processes is not sexy but it is one of the most important aspects of having a productive and gratifying work environment.
In my experience, it is also the leading cause of team dysfunction.
For example, an executive recently complained to me how her team will say passive aggressive things like “leadership hasn’t made the decision yet” when they are clearly referring to her. She and the CEO are “leadership” in that statement. But, from her perspective, the decision they refer to is theirs to make, as a team. Everyone must weigh in on the decision.
While some may see this as a misunderstanding or miscommunication, it is really about knowing who is making the decision (a role) and how they go about making the decision (a process). Unclear roles and processes trip teams up a lot.
If a team is not clear on who does what when and how, they will most certainly waste time and (worse, I think) feel less engaged and less satisfied. When these problems go unchecked, under heavy workloads and stressful conditions, it’s a recipe for burnout.
Every team must clarify roles and responsibilities and re-evaluate those definitions periodically to ensure everyone is getting the most out of their work. Here’s how.
Assess the Situation
If you notice people disengaged on the team, frustration percolating, or downgraded productivity, don’t immediately assume there is a problem with the people. Meaning, “they’re a bunch of complainers” or they lack positive attitudes. Rather, examine the work. Assess the situation.
Odds are the team the team is wrestling with a lack of clarity on processes. The only way to unpack the root cause is by taking a time out to examine the work. Simply ask:
What is unclear about this work?
How are decisions made? Who is the decision-maker?
What processes need to be defined?
These questions will likely uncover the real problem at hand.
Create a Plan and Clear a Path
After assessing, consolidate the issues identified above into the top 3 highest priority topics. Then, clear a path to complete this work to clarify roles and processes. It is a work project, just like the department specific deliverables the team achieves every day.
To clear a path means to put some activities (e.g., reports, meetings, presentations, etc.) on pause for say two weeks. This frees up time to put quality effort into this role clarification project. Avoid piling this role clarification project on top of everything else. Show importance by dedicating time to it.
Define the Work and Evaluate
If you have assessed, planned, and created a path forward, you are well on your way to clarifying roles and responsibilities in a productive way. Because the appropriate “leg work” has been done, the actual task is less daunting.
Now, put the routines and processes in play. Do this for a couple weeks or maybe a month. Check-in with the team and evaluate the new processes. Have the issues been corrected? Is the team satisfied with the result? You can adjust as needed.
Examining work processes and the responsibilities therein are core functions for a leader and for the team. It is a shared responsibility but often, this activity is side-lined for the day-to-day work. When teams take a time-out from the work and ensure roles are clear, they find they not only get more done, but feel better about the work and each other.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people 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 that provides customized training and coaching.
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