Defining team roles and responsibilities not only benefits individual employees, but it also benefits both the team and the organization as a whole. After all, when employees understand what's expected of them, they can perform their job a lot more efficiently.
If each person is assigned responsibilities that match their skills and proficiencies, the team will be able to perform consistently well and adapt when it needs to. Nothing falls through the gaps because every team member knows what they’re accountable for.
It also means individuals are allowed more autonomy. If people understand their responsibilities and how they relate to the team’s goals, they have more freedom to decide how they carry out the tasks that are needed.
And when you have high performing teams, the organization thrives.
But how do you get to this stage? What is the best way to clearly define team roles and responsibilities within a team?
In this article, we'll delve deeper into why they're so important to clarify internally. We'll also explain the difference between roles and responsibilities, and share 11 best practices for defining them within a team.
The importance of clear roles and responsibilities
"Collaboration improves when individual roles are clearly defined and well understood and when individuals feel their role is bound in ways that allow them to work independently." - Tammy Erickson
Erickson points to teams that work in truly unpredictable environments—search and rescue teams, police teams and medical teams in trauma units constantly work in situations where they can’t predict the tasks they’ll have to carry out next.
These teams thrive on having clearly defined roles and responsibilities, because everyone knows their team responsibilities, the team is able to spring into action and work together when it needs to.
Clarifying the roles and responsibilities of a team is the start point for forming a high performing team. It also improves employee experience, increases productivity, improves organization efficiency, sets teams up for success, increases morale and momentum, eliminates confusion, and saves both time and money.
Not to mention it also makes hiring easier as you’ll know what roles are missing, based on what responsibilities need picking up.
In some teams, not enough effort goes into defining responsibilities upfront and this can cause problems. One common frustration is that more than one person will assume responsibility for the tasks, which can cause duplication of effort, frustration, and even competitiveness.
As teams work together it’s inevitable that the requirements of the work group will change. Teams will need to review and adapt who is responsible for what. Which means that managers need to get a handle on their team's composition.
Role vs Responsibility - what's the difference?
Roles refer to the different positions on the team.
According to Meredith Belbin, a team role is: “The tendency to behave, contribute and interrelate with others in a particular way".
Responsibilities, on the other hand, are the tasks and duties that each particular role is required to perform.
The efficient running of a business depends on every employee understanding their role, what is required of them and what their particular tasks and duties entail. When each team member understands what their role requires, they can carry out their assigned tasks efficiently.
11 best practices to clarify roles and responsibilities within a team
1. Understand the team's goals and objectives
Before you begin defining team members roles and responsibilities, you need to understand what the team is working toward. Ask managers to list all the tasks the team needs to achieve, as well as their work from recent projects.
- Were those projects successfully completed?
- What could have been improved?
- What skills were missing?
- Were there any duplications of effort?
- What tasks weren’t done?
2. Determine what work needs to get done
In order to assign responsibilities, you need to establish what work the team needs to do. Then you can work to prioritize those tasks that support the organization’s business goals and objectives.
Meet with team managers frequently to discuss the team’s bigger picture so that you can all plan priority work accordingly.
3. Understand the team's strengths and weaknesses
Managers should take the time to understand and leverage the strengths and weaknesses of their individual team members. In fact, a psychometric profiling tool not only provides managers with this insight, but it can also help team members better understand one another as well - something that can help improve communication and trust.
4. Define areas of responsibility upfront
Tasks that are critical to teams achieving their goals must be clearly defined, and assigned to people who have the skills and experience to carry them out.
One way to do this is by defining task competencies. First list the requirements for each role, in order of importance. Then list the competencies for each requirement. You can then match individuals to competencies.
Traditional job descriptions can be backward looking, they focus on skills the team already has, rather than performance outcomes set in the future. Try performance profiling instead or develop a roles and responsibilities board.
5. Be prepared to redefine responsibilities
It’s in the nature of teamwork that the goals of the team will change and you need to be prepared to redefine responsibilities to match. Everyone in the team should be aware of their own objectives, but should also be aware that these can change.
6. Identify responsibilities
Define (or redefine) the role of each team member and their specific responsibilities. Do this by having each team member write down what they believe their responsibilities are in their role.
Then ask each team member to write down what they believe their teammates’ responsibilities are in their separate roles.
Doing this allows the team to clarify the different contributions each person makes to the team, and gives everyone clarity on what each team member does.
Make sure they focus on roles and not the individual people. By focussing on the role’s responsibilities, they can identify gaps in skills, rather than people who are lacking the skills.
The next step to this practice is to then ask each team member to be clear on what they each need from one another to succeed. This step is key to creating high performing teams, because while teams are made up of individuals, it’s the team's ability to function as one that separates them from mediocrity, and encourages accountability. It also helps if all team members are working towards a common purpose.
When team members can count on one another, you increase psychological safety and create the conditions for success.
7. Deal with gaps
If responsibilities are clearly defined, gaps where responsibilities haven’t been specifically assigned will be easier to spot. Everyone on the team should contribute to doing this. Gaps are also a lot more obvious if you write down the responsibilities and assignments rather than just talk about them.
8. Use a team profiling model to consider other team roles
- Belbin’s Team Roles. Belbin’s model says there are nine team roles which contribute toward team success. These nine roles can be categorized into three groups: action-oriented, people-oriented, thought-oriented. Assess the balance of roles in the team. Are there gaps that need filling? Any crossover?
- De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. This model asks teams to explore different ways of problem solving, to challenge their way of thinking and improve collaboration allowing the team to make better decisions and be more innovative.
- Deloitte Business Chemistry. This model identifies four primary work styles and related strategies to how teams can reach shared goals: pioneers, guardians, drivers and integrators. Most team members will identify a little bit from each work style, but most likely align closely with just one or two of them. Identifying preferred workstyles helps team members work to their strengths.
9. Understand the difference between individual roles and team member roles
While individual roles are filled based on a job description, individual roles within a team are driven by the team’s mission and the requirements of the team, for example the skills, experience and capabilities the team needs from its members in order to accomplish the team’s goals.
Therefore team work roles are the contribution that is required from each individual team member, to enable the team to achieve its mission.
10. Address unhealthy overlaps in responsibility
If you need to resolve an overlap, consider the team priorities so that you do this fairly. Make it easy and unpolitical to point out overlaps in responsibility.
For example, if quality is the imperative you might allocate the most experienced person to do the job. If cost is your driver, a more junior person could be assigned, perhaps with peer supervision from a senior colleague.
Tip: Staying unpolitical is easier if you focus on roles or job titles instead of naming individuals. The Red Arrows refer to each other by number (Red 1, Red 2, etc.) to keep the distinction between roles and team members clear.
11. Allocate work fairly
Ensure that workload is fairly divided between the team over the long term. From time to time team members may have peaks of activity. Over time you want to make sure work is balanced across the team. Encourage team members to spot team members who might need help or support in balancing workloads.
You should also ensure your managers are having regular one-to-ones with their team members, in order to provide continuous feedback. In addition to this, managers should determine the best meeting cadence with their team to check in on goal progress and reflect periodically.
Final thoughts on clarifying roles and responsibilities within a team
By clearly defining team roles and responsibilities, the team is equipped to learn and adapt together. They develop accountable relationships and discipline to work harmoniously, pulling together to achieve the goal.
By identifying not just individual roles and responsibilities, but what each team member contributes to their team role, your managers can build a team where members can rely on one another, can trust one another, and can be accountable to one another.
This builds the foundation for high performance.
While our masterclasses and live coaching sessions help to motivate, engage, and educate your managers on how to become better leaders, the Saberr platform reinforces this learning, using nudges to deliver timely prompts, while delivering contextually relevant resources—conversation guides, exercises, and techniques—to further develop them on-the-job and in the flow of their day-to-day work.