The deceptive role description


The request

In some organizations, it is not uncommon for people to ask for a role description, i.e. some piece of text that describes what they or their colleagues are supposed to be doing. The reason for the request varies, but typically goes in one of four categories:

  • The person asking is unsure of what he/she is supposed to be doing
  • The person asking is building an argument towards a co-worker, that is believed to be doing the wrong things
  • The person asking want it to argue for a raise with his/her boss.
  • The person asking is recruiting for a specific role

The response

If you respond to the request by quickly emailing a document, chances are that you are doing the people involved a disservice. Here’s why: there is nothing wrong with role descriptions, except that they are deceptive. They give the illusion of clarifying mandate, responsibilities and tasks, but in reality no piece of paper will give you anything but perhaps a starting point for a discussion.

In my experience, no two people are alike, no two people will interpret a role the same, no matter if they both follow the same role description to the letter. And rarely, if ever, does a role description cover everything that you want a person to do, and you certainly never want a person to be limited what is in the role description.

(Sometimes, the person asking is just being difficult, because they do not like their new role. In this case, the response ”I’ll get you a role description, but only if you promise to do everything in it” gives interesting results.)

In all categories listed above, what the requester really need is support in their specific situation, not a document that was written by some consultant, years ago, for a different organization, in another context, with a different goal. If you, or somebody else, can give this support, then great. Otherwise, there is a trick outlined in the last paragraph.

The solution

Here’s the point: if you honestly want to know what you are supposed to be doing, ask! Ask your peers in the same role as you, your colleagues, your team members, your boss, your customer. They surely have an idea. Dare to ask for feedback on how you are doing, and have a discussion with people you trust about your priorities. And suddenly – and all without a role description – I’m sure you will find yourself doing things, good things, that will help both you and your organization to new heights.