2 min read

Defining roles and responsibilities at work

February 4, 2021

We were discussing today the fact that defining clear “roles and responsibilities” seems to get in the way of getting stuff done and is a stumbling block on the way to effective teamwork.

To help solve the problem we looked elsewhere. Where else do teams work well together through choice, necessity or nature? What can we learn from these great teams and how they just “make it happen”?

The interest in roles and responsibilities came out of research we’ve done with teams. We found this was one of the widest areas of dissatisfaction between teams realities and expectations.

Results from Saberr research on teamwork issues

It seems especially important now when roles need to relate to goals that change so fast. Teams need to be able to realign and redefine what team members are doing and rely on their team mates to have everything else covered so the whole team delivers. It seems they are struggling at times.

As a group we challenged ourselves with the question “what can we learn from analogous environments about how roles and responsibilities are organised?” After an hour surrounded by post-its these are some of the most interesting spaces we came up with….


In the army teams depend on each other for their lives, and potentially the lives of hundreds of others. There’s little room for error so excellent teamwork is fundamental to survival. How do they make this happen:

  • Clarity of role — to the point where it is visible to others in what they wear
  • Strict hierarchy for management & decision making
  • Rehearsed drills alongside on the spot decision making
  • Commitment to decisions — once a decision is made everyone is committed regardless of their prior opinion.


As we all know you can’t chose your family, but as a team families make it work, for better or worse…

  • “The boss” role certainly differs between the home and the office, adapting to a new role when you come home from work is commonplace — at least in our office!
  • Negotiation and renegotiation…and renegotiation, this is something families do well as situations and demands change
  • Families are planning ahead to create successful failure — There’s been a 65% rise in interest in pre-nuptial agreements according to American Matrimonial lawyers

Government & Justice

Governments are responsible for longstanding, high impact, formal decision making and in many cases responsibility is shared

  • Subsidiarity — decisions are made at the lowest possible level so those who are impacted have influence on the outcome
  • Voting — decisions are made by the majority
  • Separation of power and division of responsibility between the executive, legislature and judiciary
  • Prosecution and defence — there’s always two sides presented before a decision is made
  • Your fate in the hands of a “jury of your peers” not your boss


Throughout the natural world we observe great feats of endurance and survival as a result of teams

  • Migrating birds — share the role of leader at the front of the flock
  • Wolfpacks — the “alpha male” leads from the middle
  • The human body — local systems handle problems until something bigger arises and the whole body “locks down”

It’s interesting to see that we found varying levels of responsibility and team design across these spaces. What we want to know now is which model, or blend of models works best for teams at work.

We’re conducting some small experiments over the next week to see if we can use some of our thinking to improve how teams define and evolve role and responsibilities.

If you’d like to take part — please sign up here.

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