The Bill Engvall Role Clarity Approach Is Making You An Autocrat [Part 1]

peak performance-dougby Doug Wilson, Columnist & Featured Contributor

The Role Clarifying Autocrat

          This is your role.”

          Here are your duties.”

          Perform these activities and nothing else.”

          Stay in your box.”

          That’s not your job.”

Or as comedian Bill Engvall would say–

          Here’s your box!”

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]W[/su_dropcap]E ALL HAVE HEARD statements like these and whether the words were said politely or harshly, they are the words of an autocrat. They convey an attitude that people are to be placed in boxes. No wonder we observe silo mentalities across companies where people and parts of the organization do not collaborate or work well together.   No wonder we observe critical tasks fall between the cracks as people look the other way. No wonder we fail to see initiative for anything that falls outside one’s “responsibilities”. Leaders have trained people, much like puppies inside an invisible electric fence, to stay inside their boundaries!

One of the drivers for excessive focus on boxes is role clarity. Leaders feel they are practicing great leadership skills when they clarify roles and responsibilities. The gurus tell us that role clarity is critical to successful employees and teams and there is an element of truth that draws leaders to this flame of clarity.

  • Leaders do point direction.
  • Leaders do define what success looks like.
  • Staff does need a picture of the target for which they are striving.

The problem is that leaders focus clarification on the wrong thing. Note that in each case above the issue is not role clarity but goal clarity!

There are multiple reasons why leaders practice autocratic behaviors. They might need to control others; they might be “type A” personalities; they might have a fear of mistakes or failures; or, they might simply lack trust in all or a few employees. In all these situations, the leader, for the most part, knows that they are practicing autocratic behaviors.

Word "clarity" viewed from a glasses.

When this happens, the legitimate aim of creating clarity results in the opposite of what was intended. This leader is usually astonished to learn that people see him or her as acting autocratically. What this leader does not realize is that instead of motivating staff by illuminating the target, he or she demoralizes staff by creating a straitjacket of duties, tasks and responsibilities. When staff begins to chafe under this approach or when performance problems begin to occur (you can’t clarify everything, right?), this leader views staff as the problem. Obviously they are unwilling to “respond” to the leader’s “good management practices” and well-meaning intentions. Must be staffs’ poor attitude, right?

Key Lesson: Clarity is critical but it must be implemented properly.

Creating Clarity Usually Starts Off With The Wrong Focus

Role clarification is a common effort in most organizations. It occurs with new employees, promoted employees, or new teams or work groups. In all these cases roles clarity becomes the focus and the focus usually revolves around tasks.

Lets take a very common example: the new employee and look at the most common method of role clarity, the position description. This role clarity effort has occurred with almost every employee who has darkened the door of an organization. Almost immediately upon hire the organization culture begins to groom employees to stay within their “box”.

Consider these typical issues with the position descriptions:

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Confused Purpose

  • The true purpose of organizational job descriptions is not role clarification: instead, most are written to justify titles and salary levels. Therefore job descriptions are formatted and worded to address questions of finance or human resources rather than to serve as a performance management tool designed to clarify focus and expectations. The customer is not the employee or the leader but various staff functions.

Masks clarity

  • Job descriptions are task focused. They are usually written in a long, drab “articles of war’ format.
  • Job descriptions are disorganized; they are written in a haphazard manner in which related tasks are seldom grouped together.
  • Job descriptions seldom reflect priority, importance of or the intended value created by work activities. Every item appears as an equal duty in the long list of duties.

Disorganized Preparation

  • Job descriptions often arise from a manager’s wish list of what they would like the job to be. Little thought is given to what the job should be or what value should be created. Little thought is given to what duties should be re-assigned, eliminated or added. Instead leaders immediately begin to enumerate tasks without a purpose in mind.

Discussion of Performance Expectations

  • Job descriptions seldom are explained or discussed. Typically a person receives a job description within hours of being employed, told to “review it” and that is the last time it is ever seen or discussed (unless the supervisor must use it to ensure the employee knows he or she is required to do a certain task at a later time!).

Not Aligned With Other Employee’s Efforts

  • Seldom does a position description define interfaces with other key partners who must be involved in producing value. Instead, the message is clear – “here’s your box”.

Does Not Serve As the Foundation Of Performance Management

  • Position descriptions should be the basis of the entire performance management system. Everything should flow from this well thought-out document. Instead it seldom provides meaningful direction or value to the recruitment, hiring, orientation, goals setting, capability development or performance assessment and feedback processes the employee and manager will participate in.
  • Job duties are “written in stone”. They are seldom changed until a position again becomes vacant.

Justifies Autocratic Behavior

  • Employees often view job descriptions as a “license to rape”. Many job descriptions end with the statement “other duties as assigned.” Insecure managers add this phrase as their authority to require an employee to perform any work assignment the manager wishes.[/message]

As a performance management tool, the job description is an abysmal failure.

  • It focuses on the minute rather then the conceptual.
  • It focuses on tasks, not value.
  • It fails to provide true direction or clarity; it fails to motivate or inspire.
  • It fails as a meaningful basis of performance consequences.
  • There is no clear line of sight from the design of the position structure through the person’s work activities all the way to an assessment of performance and discussion of capability development.

In essence it is a low value document that takes time and energy to prepare but produces little or no meaningful value.

The result of the position description, as with other role clarity efforts, is to provide a person with a list of tasks for which they can be held responsible.

Key Lesson: Clarity does not result from a focus on tasks.

Where Do We Go From Here?

If clarity is important but role clarity is not the answer, what is the proper focus? Remember a high achieving leader is concerned with direction and clarity, but he or she not does not achieve that purpose by enumerating duties. (Most leaders know that if they have to get into a discussion with a staff member about what their specific job tasks are or are not, they have lost the battle before the discussion even begins).

The solution? A high achieving leader focuses on value, not activity. How that is done is the topic for Part II of this Article.

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