Role confusion means a person doesn’t know what they are supposed to do, allowed to do, or are powerful enough to do in their role. It comes in two very different forms with very different symptoms.
Lack of Initiative: A “Cold” System
Think of what happens to the molecules in water when the temperature drops—they start to move more slowly or sluggishly, on their way to becoming a solid, ice. When people don’t know how much they are allowed to do in their role, or what’s fully expected of them, it’s as if the energy in the system comes down. This can happen to people at any level of a system—from the front-line housekeeper all the way up to the executive level.
If you are frustrated because people who work for you aren’t taking initiative, you’re wrestling with a “cold” system. The role confusion here is that people are unsure of what they are supposed to do or allowed to do, so they act cautiously instead. In the middle of the org chart, this sounds like people shrugging and saying, “That’s not my area so there’s nothing I can do about it.” At the executive level, this sounds like people who feel “blocked at every turn” because they are running into barriers from other departments or other functions. Even these high-level executives may be feeling cautious. They don’t feel like they have control over these other areas, and they don’t want to make waves. The end result in a cold system is the same—not enough action.
Butting Heads: A “Hot” System
Now imagine what happens to the molecules in water when something external turns the heat up—they move faster and faster on their way to becoming a gas, steam. When something in an organization or an industry’s environment shifts in a way that puts the pressure on, chances are you’ll encounter the problems of a “hot” system.
People in this system are literally “all fired up” and taking action, and they are taking much bigger risks than their cold-system counterparts. They aren’t likely to feel cautious; instead they feel a sense of urgency and are compelled to take action.
If you’re leading an organization like this one, you may feel like celebrating. The high energy is exciting and it’s much less frustrating than leading a sluggish “cold” system. But there are challenges here, too. Just like the way the water molecules start bouncing off one another in a pot of boiling water, different agendas can start to conflict pretty quickly in a hot system. People duplicate efforts without knowledge or without slowing down long enough to integrate. People will push harder for their own initiatives—the ones where they feel they can exert direct, vertical control—and conflict between departments will rise.
You want the high energy of the hot system without its struggles, and you want to invigorate a cold system without creating conflict. What’s a leader to do?
The Remedy Is the Same
The good news is that the remedy for “too cold” and “too hot” turns out to be very similar.
- Set a clear path forward for the organization.
Facing a volatile environment, create a granular plan for 6-18 months at the outside. Detailed five-year plans won’t help you here. This is true for most business environments these days.
- Clarify roles and responsibilities.
This means helping people to understand WHAT they are supposed to do (responsibilities) and also how much AUTHORITY they have to do it (role). The language for this conversation in our view, of course, is RACI. But the value of using the tool will largely come from having the conversations, as well as from writing down the agreements that ensue.
- Write down the agreements.
This step is important unless you want to have the same circular discussions again and again. (Cold systems often do have the same discussion again and again without minding it too much. When the environment heats up, that changes.) Using RACI helps to ground conversations about abstract things—plans and roles—in a concrete language. If you have the A for something, go ahead and make the decision and let’s all move on. If Joe over there has the A for it instead, stop struggling for control and go put your energies someplace else.
- Hold people accountable.
Cold systems particularly need this step to convey performance expectations. If you design a new plan and set of roles, but put it up on a shelf, you are communicating that none of that work was real or meaningful. See “Design Your Organization for Accountability: Five Ways to Get Started” white paper for more on how to create an accountable system.
- Check back in regularly.
Especially in a hot system, where the environment is volatile, you will need to check back in on your plans and on your role agreements on a regular basis—quarterly.
Can your system be both “cold” and “hot” at the same time?
Yes, it can. Departmental leaders may be running on high, bumping into one another with a sense of urgency, while the rest of the organization is sluggishly behaving like a cold bureaucracy. It pays to think about which kind of problem you’re wrestling with at different levels. But the remedy is still the same.
Want to learn more about how to increase accountability in your organization? Download our "Design Your Organization for Accountability: Five Ways to Get Started" white paper.