Why do people talk about roles and responsibilities, and why should we care? Everyone wants to know what to do and who to go to for help. People want to be successful, but in order to achieve success they need to feel confident in their roles and responsibilities.

When talking of roles and responsibilities in the workplace, a traditional boss might tell their employees they are responsible for a, b, and c, and to leave x, y, and z to someone else. But a leader in a great working environment would ask: “What do you think you’re best at? How do you think you can contribute the most to this organization? What do you think you can do to help our team be rock stars?”

By doing so, they are involving the person in the decision of how they will contribute every day: How can they contribute to the team’s success? What are they good at?  What’s going to add value to the company? Approaching roles and responsibilities in the right way is the core of unlocking high performance. 

People discussing details in a business cafe

Knowing what other people’s roles and responsibilities in the workplace are is important, too. If a team member knows who to turn to for help with a specific problem, they will benefit from the psychological safety of feeling supported.

When people feel supported by their team they are more productive, and when they’re more productive they’re happier. This creates a virtuous cycle that fosters an environment where people can rely on those around them for support. Knowing other people’s roles and responsibilities is central to creating an amazing team. 

Roles vs Responsibilities – What’s the Difference?

Although the terms differ slightly depending on the organization, a role tends to be the broadest area of defining the scope, and includes many areas of responsibility. 

Leading Beyond Change

But roles and responsibilities are not static: the way they are seen goes through an evolutionary shift at different organizational levels of maturity. 

Understanding Roles and Responsibilities

Start where you are. What does that mean? It’s really about paying attention to your team. What level of roles and responsibilities are needed to help them be successful with where they are on their journey? The first step is simply: ask them. 

People talking in office hallway

Are roles and responsibilities clear? Is the team doing well? Which areas could be improved? This creates an opportunity to listen to people, to guide them in creating the clarity that they need to be successful. And this process applies at every level of an organization’s journey, whether in a younger, less mature team, or in a really evolved organization. 

It’s important not to mandate having ambiguous roles and responsibilities if your team isn’t ready for that. Rather, make sure that roles and responsibilities are clearly defined initially, and model the way of working you would like to see your team emulate. 

How to Define Roles and Responsibilities

The best way of defining someone’s roles and responsibilities is to co-create with them. Sit down, open a shared document, and brainstorm. What should the role be? What should the responsibilities be? What things are included in those responsibility areas? 

Alternatively, if you do not have time to do this, ask the person to write up their own role and responsibilities, and then look over them together.  This creates a sense of ownership, and shows you believe in them. 

If you’re dealing with people at a very low level of growth, it may be better to define their role and then get their input.  

Business team looking at a computer while holding documents

Regardless of the approach you go for, get feedback from other people on the team who interact with that role to  improve the quality of those roles and those responsibilities, and foster a team spirit. 

Common Mistakes When Defining Roles and Responsibilities

Giving Too Much Authority

Giving too much authority or responsibility to someone who’s not ready for it is a common mistake. If the person turns out to not have the capabilities or maturity, it’s difficult to then take that authority away without damaging someone’s confidence. It’s far easier to give people more authority if they show they’re ready for it than it is to take authority away.

Having  people in positions they are not fully competent creates a situation fraught with challenge: work is not getting done as it should, but constantly telling people what to do can leave them feeling threatened and micromanaged. 

This is where the Decision Cards technology is helpful: rather than giving away roles and responsibilities, the focus is on how to talk about decisions: who’s the best person to make that decision? How involved should you be in this decision? How much ownership do you have of this decision?

Woman disappointingly shows a business chart during a meeting

Breaking it down to the level of decisions rather than roles or responsibilities creates a much finer grain way to get people fully involved based on their level of expertise. Rather than giving people full authority all together, it’s all about giving them authority incrementally based on how that person is showing up, how much responsibility they’re taking, how they’re growing, and how successful they are at making decisions.

Sharing Too Little Authority

Another common mistake is the exact opposite: giving away too little responsibility.

Not giving people enough responsibility creates boredom, disinvestment, and deflated egos. Giving people responsibility, and therefore ownership of their work, activates their ego in a positive way, and helps them care more about the success of their work and the project. Having a sense of ownership and pride over one’s job cannot be underestimated, and the benefits of this override the small errors the person might make. 

Oftentimes, our default solution is often to give responsibilities to the most senior person, but when we start giving responsibility to junior people, they’re going to start learning, growing, and being much more excited about coming to work. Similarly, senior members of the team will have more time to do other important work, including mentoring people or working on long-term strategy. Giving up on the need for perfection leads to a much better outcome long term. 

Top view of busy people working in business office

Developing People to Take on Responsibility

When people start out and have a low level of psychological safety and personal growth, crisp, clearly defined roles and responsibilities are necessary and will support them in their personal and professional growth. 

However, in organizations with higher levels of psychological safety, people’s consciousness grows and they become more evolved. People think less in terms of rigid roles and responsibilities and more about how they can best serve the team and the organization. In a secure, high performance team, people will dynamically trade off roles and responsibilities, decisions, and ownership on a regular basis. People just notice what needs to be done and get it done. 

Being territorial about roles and responsibilities is a sign of a low level of maturity and a low performance team and  organization. Mature people in a mature organization will just do what has to be done to serve a purpose. Ultimately, the meaning of roles and responsibilities is dynamic and will shift based on the level of consciousness and maturity of the organizational system.

Leading Beyond Change

The first most important part of the journey towards an evolved, mature team is focusing on your own evolutionary journey as a leader. By working through your own issues and fears, and being comfortable with ambiguous roles and responsibilities, you’re leading by example and transmitting a sense of psychological safety to your team. 

Finding The Right Amount of Authority to Share

Like everything else, through learning. Learning about yourself, learning about the people you’re working with, learning about their skills and capabilities, and experimenting to see what works. Everyone is unique, so what works with one person might not work with another.

The first step is to go on a learning journey.  We’re inviting people here on a learning journey, to understand this complex art of roles and responsibilities, decisions, and to truly understand what it means to evolve people. That’s a shift away from demanding the right answer, or giving all the answers: it’s about creating a path that will lead to much  greater success for the individual and everyone around them.