September 01, 2014

Teams with Role Clarity are substantially more successful than teams without

Clarity affords focus  - Thomas Leonard

Role ambiguity is one of the greatest sources of stress. Though easily fixed, it is a ongoing issue for many teams. Role clarity assumes goal clarity. Yet, even when teams have established goal clarity many struggle with role clarity. Teams have even been observed arguing about who is on a team and who is not.

Team Performance

Role clarity is a prerequisite for effective team performance. When team members know what is expected of them, which aspects of their role are most important, how the delivery of that role contributes to team goals and how their performance will be evaluated, the team as a whole will perform to a higher level of effectiveness. However, is not just a case of individual role clarity; each team member must also be clear on the roles of all other team members. This requires regular discussion between the team and team leader, with the leader ensuring that individually and collectively all team members understand their own and each other’s roles.

Role Clarity v Job Description

It is not uncommon to hear a team leader say “What do you mean ‘low role clarity’? They all have their job descriptions!” Job descriptions are a requirement but are insufficient in themselves. For most employees, a job description is the document against which they were recruited. It is a defined “job” within the organisation. However, it does not necessarily define their role in a team. Clarity and definition of a team role is an iterative process, which requires discussion on an ongoing basis between the leader and team members, as well as amongst team members.


Ferdinand Fournies (2000) in Coaching for Improved Performance reports from a survey of 25,000 managers and supervisors that the number one reason for people not doing what they are supposed to do is that "they don't know what they are supposed to do". This is clearly linked to role clarity.

If goal clarity is the bedrock of all team activity, then role clarity is absolutely the platform that defines expectations, enables performance management and holds team members accountable. Role clarity is the means by which priorities can be mapped and training needs are understood. It ensures that all team members contribute fully in terms of their capabilities.


The effective team leader, seeking to lead an effective team, will commit time and effort to this crucial element of teamwork.

The effective team leader:

  • will not simply define the roles on paper and hand them out. S/he will explain the role and ensure that its purpose and deliverables are clearly understood in a broad context.
  • will ensure that the expectations of each role are understood by both the 'role-owner' and by other team members.
  • will identify, clarify and manage organisational challenges that impact each role. (Just telling people to act as a team is not enough, if the organisational constraints prevent them for acting as a team.)
  • will accept that maintaining role clarity is an ongoing maintenance task for the team leader, not the team members

Without role clarity, confusion reigns and repetition of tasks and resource wastage is a common feature. Tasks 'falling between the cracks' is inevitable. High performance is impossible as individuals must now operate in a vacuum.

Without role clarity, performance and accountability cannot be managed and certainly not in an objective and fair manner. Some individuals will end up 'carrying' others, which will lead to perceptions of unfairness. This in turn can lead to a breakdown in trust and, ultimately, in the sense of team spirit.

Without role clarity teams do not know what to prioritise, where to focus effort nor do they understand if their performance is acceptable. In short, they don’t know what they are doing.

Role Clarity for Success

Role ambiguity is one of the greatest barriers to team effectiveness. Teams with role clarity are substantially more successful than those without. It takes a team leader to recognise its importance and create the processes to ensure it is an ongoing activity for the team. It’s not difficult but takes commitment.

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