Conflicts from confused roles and responsibilities

July 26, 2010

Two new cases came in this past week. A small nonprofit organization with four staff hired a new coordinator and within months communication had broken down between him and the office manager. The other case was in a very large organization where two managers had stopped speaking to each other, which was hard on staff who needed the managers to direct the work flow seamlessly. In both cases, the problem turned out to be confusion over who did what, when and how. Because the roles were unclear, it was natural that blame, finger-pointing and defensive excuses followed.

There are at least two places where clear roles and responsibilities matter to harmony. One is among members of the Boards of Directors of profit or nonprofit organizations. The other is any workplace with more than one employee.

Boards of Directors are often made up of volunteers recruited for their skill, experience and talent, plus a passion for the cause of the organization. Or, maybe just to pad a resume with ‘good works’. Whatever the motive, once on a Board, just having passion and being a do-gooder isn’t enough to prevent conflict from arising among the Directors. What they have in common with other kinds of people who are paid workers, is that their conflict often stems from unclear job descriptions, or ambiguous roles with uncertain responsibilities.<

When the roles and responsibilities lack clarity, there are three risks. The first is that gaps in who is responsible for certain tasks exist where it’s no one’s job to do that task. Whether people notice the task is falling into the gap or not, no one steps forward to do it because it’s no one’s job. The consequences of having gaps is blaming and fault finding in who ought to have assigned it to someone, or who should have done it without being asked, or at least have noticed it wasn’t being done.

The second risk is in overlaps. Where the roles and responsibilities fall into more than one person’s plate, it might get done, but in a way that sends inconsistent messages or skews the ability to evaluate the outcomes. The frequent outcome of overlaps is jealousy and hostility that one’s ‘turf’ is being disrespected, the work is being second-guessed and people tend to feel undermined or their competence questioned. Otherwise, they reason, the other person would not have been doing work that is mine to do.

A third risk comes from slaps. Whatever is causing people to feel bad about confusing roles and responsibilities, the outcome tends to be the same. Someone feels slapped for doing or not doing something that should or should not have been done. Likely, it was something that might have been avoided if everyone had been clear on whose job it was to make the necessary decisions associated with the neglected or overly attended to task.

Filed Under: Conflict Competence      

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