Who Does What for Whom and Why: The Importance of Defining Roles & Responsibilities Within Organizations

Who Does What for Whom and Why: The Importance of Defining Roles & Responsibilities Within Organizations

You’re watching a football game. You see the wide receiver catch the ball—you do not see them look to the quarterback for approval before doing so. Nor do you see the quarterback ask the wide receiver if they will catch the ball when thrown to them. In fact, all the players on the field do their jobs without needing to check in with the coach. Everyone’s an expert in their roles and each play is pre-rehearsed, so when problems arise mid-play, each player knows how to tackle the issue (yes, tackle) and find solutions in real-time.

This is how high-performing organizations operate—ideally, how every organization should operate. The leader, or coach (to use the same metaphor), has a relationship with the team on the whole and the team members have relationships with each other. Each team member knows the expectations of their role, and everyone in the organization understands who to go to for what. There’s no need for confusion every time a project hits a snag; there’s no question of how the work will get done and who will do it. It’s process optimization at its best.

Many organizations, however, haven’t reached optimization, and that’s often because they don’t have clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

What are roles and responsibilities?

When we hire new people to bring into our companies, we’re trying to fulfill a specific duty or function. Sometimes as leaders we’re looking for someone to do work we’d like to get off of our plates; other times, we’re trying to find someone who has a different skill set than we do, or we need to fill a blind spot within the team’s competencies.

Roles and responsibilities are what defines the positions we need to fill. They are specific descriptions of both what day-to-day tasks that team member will handle and what broader responsibilities they have within their department and the company overall—what big-picture goals you expect them to track that help contribute to the company’s growth.

Why are role definitions important?

Oftentimes, we expect people to wear multiple hats. We like having employees who can just say “yes” and do the work that’s necessary for the company to grow. But frequently, these employees end up with way too much to do, which leads to confusion about priorities and causes them to seek approval and permission from you for each action or decision in the process. Ultimately, this just passes more decisions back up to you and doesn’t grant anyone the freedom to accomplish bigger goals.

Providing clear role definitions grants emotional permission for the team to perform well. When we tell our team members what actions and level of autonomy we expect (and that you do expect a degree of autonomy), it clarifies which decisions they can make on their own and which ones need your approval. It gives them confidence that you trust them to make the right decisions and empowers them to take ownership of those decisions and their outcomes, knowing that they truly have an effect on the company’s trajectory.

Role definitions also improve organizational economics. With more responsibility comes more ownership, meaning things can move faster. Without the need for constant executive oversight, teams can create their own synergies and move projects along with less wasted time and, thus, lower cost. When everyone has a real responsibility to work together, it cultivates a sense of camaraderie and teamwork—a sort of “skin in the game” mentality that brings about greater investment.

Lastly, defined roles mean overall performance reviews can be process-oriented instead of person-oriented. When something goes poorly, rather than seeing the mistakes and misses in the person, we can keep a greater level of objectivity and look to the system to see what should be improved.

What does this look like in practice?

To implement effective roles and responsibilities, company leadership needs to create transparent role descriptions for every position in the company, including the founder or primary leader. The descriptions should delineate two things:

  1. The specific tasks the person in that role will do
  2. The responsibilities the person in that role will have—what areas they will oversee and manage

The descriptions do not need to specify how they go about overseeing and managing their areas. That should be largely up to them, as long as you can track that things are being taken care of in a way that aligns with your company values.

The role descriptions should also be published in a centralized location so that everyone in the organization knows who is responsible for what and who is accountable to whom.

It’s important to know, too, that role descriptions are perishable. As your organization grows, seizes new opportunities, and launches more and more business activities, the role descriptions within your organization will grow and change as well. The company should have a process for regular reviews in place to keep up with those organizational changes and consistently reassess both how those employees’ roles and responsibilities have adapted over time and how the description and expectations of their role should evolve—or what new assignments should be made.

What does a team look like without role definitions?

Without clearly defined roles and responsibilities, team members have no real authority to drive change and no real license to perform at their highest level. They must always have a higher-up (presumably, you, the leader) double-checking and approving their work, which creates an unnecessary and avoidable bottleneck at the top. Action items stall, decisions stall, and the whole speed of work within the organization gets backed up.

Furthermore, you limit the ability of your teams to experiment independently and test their ideas for how to bring the organization the most benefit. You also limit their power—and desire—to drive real, positive business outcomes. This often ends up with continuously disappointing team performance, because the leader has higher expectations for what their teams can accomplish, but they haven’t given their teams enough tools and trust to fulfill those expectations.

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In the end, having clearly defined roles and responsibilities really allows each person in the company to have a sense of proprietorship about the results of their work and the overall accomplishments of the company at large. It’s a win-win—or perhaps, a touchdown.

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