Interview

Why is Role Clarity So Important in Today’s Workplace?

Role clarity is essential to creating workplaces in which people feel valued and share a sense of trust.

Bill Fox
Mar 19, 2021
9 min read

Martha Kesler, is Director, Federal Portfolio at Kotter.

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How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

Martha Kesler: Simply stated, what it really boils down to is role clarity, which is central to the idea of creating work places in which people feel valued and share a sense of trust. To get that sense of trust, I point to the work of Charles Green and Andrea Howe and their trust formula, which includes the elements of credibility, reliability, and intimacy. But it doesn’t stop there. You need to balance all three against self-awareness to create trust at all levels throughout the organization.

Employees entering the work force today may have up to 12 different jobs in a lifetime. By contrast, when I first entered the work force, I expected to build my entire career within a single company or two. The idea of changing jobs more than two or three times was nearly unheard of.

This trend will not reverse itself, so how do we build trust more quickly? Certainly not with yesterday’s model. We need to create the opportunity for there to be a mutual value exchange, with employees receiving value for supporting the organization and the employer receiving value for investing in the employees. So how do we rapidly build that value in a way that enables people and organizations to move forward?

We need to make sure there’s clarity about what level of authority and autonomy employees have in performing their jobs and that leadership supports them in exercising that autonomy and authority.‌‌

That needs to be balanced with the employees’ understanding of the organization’s business objectives and role they play in achieving the organization’s goals. Those are the key elements I see needed to create workplaces where employees can thrive and organizations can achieve sustainable success.

What does it take to get an employees full attention and best performance?

Martha: What you’re asking isn’t necessarily about getting their attention. You can’t compel people to pay attention. As a leader, the question is more about how you bring their attention to bear. The one thing you can control is your behavior. Leaders need to ask themselves, “Am I paying attention to you and to your ideas?”. If they genuinely value employees and bring their attention to the conversation, the employees will bring the same. Additionally, and not surprisingly employees will be more forthcoming with questions of their own, “Where can I contribute?”, “How do I fit in?”, “How can I make a difference?”

If leaders genuinely value employees and bring their attention to the conversation, the employees will bring the same.‌‌

Leaders need to listen, and I mean really listen. To listen means being present to someone and hearing out an idea. Leaders need to create the space and provide opportunity for employees to be vulnerable and not necessarily completely polished in what they’re saying. Listening involves asking questions and inquiring further.

Perhaps Covey’s fifth habit, “seek first to understand, then to be understood” says it best. There are a lot of people who think spending time up front to develop a shared understanding is a time sink, because work isn’t being done. The rule of thumb I try to follow calls for about forty-percent of a team’s time to be focused on talking about how the work is going to be done. The second forty-percent of time should be focused on doing the work. The remaining twenty-percent should focus on lessons learned and celebrating success.

I’ve had senior leaders question me on that, asking “Are you trying to tell me my employees should only work forty percent of the time?”. Of course not. I tell them the first forty-percent is work too and generally eliminates the need for rework. The last twenty-percent increases the level of commitment to the organization and the desire of employees to engage more deeply and more fully in future work, while expanding organizational and individual knowledge. Both the organization and the employees benefit.

What do people really lack and long for at work?

Martha: I think people want a sense of purpose and desire to make a difference. They want a line of sight to the impact that they can make.

I developed a model for evaluating and understanding customer value. Through the model, we look at what’s important to different customers at different points in the life cycle of the business relationship. Clear line of sight from every single person within the organization to that end user customer is the goal. It’s like spokes in a wheel. How does each spoke contribute to the overall strength? I think that analogy applies from several perspectives. For example, the recent US government shutdown referred to a distinction between essential and non-essential employees. If an employee is viewed as non-essential, what does that say about the value they bring? How might that impact the individual’s desire to perform on the job? Understanding how their own work links to value helps employees develop a sense of purpose.

Give people the authority, the autonomy, and the know-how to accomplish what is expected.‌‌

People want to deliver results. The more I work with and explore the evolution of generations, the more I find that people want to understand the expectations placed on them regarding the results they are supposed to deliver. They want ready access to the knowledge and tools necessary to meet those expectations. And they want to be empowered to proceed. If they spoke their thought bubbles, what you would likely hear is something like this. “Give me the authority, the autonomy, and the know-how to accomplish what is expected. Then, if I’m taking time to do reflective thinking, rather than staying observably busy, and I’m delivering my results, leave me alone.”

Increasingly, people want to be able to pick and choose the work that they do and balance that work with the other dimensions of their life. We all know that technology has changed the way in which we work. Unchecked, we can find ourselves in the “on” mode all the time. Gratefully, I’m seeing the generation currently entering the workforce doing a better job of balancing work, play, and family than we have been doing since the advent of readily available mobile communications.

This dates me, but I was well into my career at the birth of wireless. As each device infiltrated my life, it allowed me to do more and more and more work. The expectation placed on me by employers, as well as on myself, was that I would do more, which I did at the cost of family and other interests. Many of us need to re-learn the art of work/life balance. In the long run, that insight actually helps us perform better on the job, be a more valuable member of our family and community, and improve our personal wellness.

Going back to your question about what is it people value at work today? It’s striking a balance in a world where we are connected and on all the time. It’s not so much being rewarded, but rather being acknowledged, valued, and validated when we deliver without violating our personal boundaries.

What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?

Martha: What do you need for me to do to help you do your job better? Period, end of sentence. Okay, end of question.

I discounted servant leadership, when I first learned about it. I was managing my own career track, I was progressing nicely, and I wanted to be the one in charge. However, as I moved into progressively more responsible roles, my perception changed. Indeed, I was just talking to someone this morning about the promotion track that I wound up on.

My goal was to create the organization in which everybody wanted to work. I wanted to be the one who never had any vacancies in my organization, because people who worked there felt supported. They knew I had their back and together we could deliver better results. We’d all know who we were serving through a well-defined and equally understood line of sight to the customer.

That is what that model of servant leadership is about. Leaders need to ask employees, “What barriers do I need to remove for you to be able to do what I’ve asked you to do?”. I once worked with a team that told me “we absolutely cannot do this. We cannot sell this product.” The product we were working on was designed to enable the placement of wireless calls from a wireless switch to a regular plain old telephone line. The holdup stemmed from a short piece of cable on which we couldn’t determine how to take revenue. We were stalled.

I looked at that group of people and I said, “Okay, here’s the deal. I hear you. We absolutely cannot do this. There is no way that that is possible. I’m not going to fight you on it anymore, but, I’ve got to go up to our senior executives and tell them why we can’t do it. I must plead your case. So help me understand why we can’t.”

Shortly thereafter, the sales team was giving me a list of all reasons why not, in other words, the list of things that would have to happen. I took that list to the senior executives and explained what needed to happen. Two weeks later we were selling the combined switch. We needed a complete understanding of the barriers in order to remove the obstacles and move forward with an approach that solved the near-term problem and equipped the sales team with the know-how to address seemingly unsolvable problems in the future.

What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?

Martha: What is the outcome that we are trying to achieve and what is the line of sight to what I’m doing?

I once worked with a group that was required to produce a cumbersome monthly report. Completing the report was a heavy lift and took away from time the staff could have better used performing their primary roles. None of the staff could tell me for whom they were producing the report or what it was used for. We decided to stop producing the report to see who would come looking for it. Instead, we consolidated the data into a quarterly report that was about 12 pages, instead of a monthly report that was two inches thick.

And guess what? No one missed the big monthly report. There were no complaints; there were no questions. However, the feedback on the quarterly version was quite positive. All of a sudden there was value – and the group producing the report felt valued. All of this came from asking a couple clarifying questions, “. . . to what end? Who’s using this and for what purpose?” I didn’t argue with the group about what they were doing, I questioned the desired outcome and how they added value.

I see this question looping back to your very first question. A workplace in which every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally requires a design that enables and reinforces a trust-based culture in which employees don’t need to question objectives and assignments, because they’ve been brought into the decision process through transparency into executive decision-making and participation in determining the “how” of execution. That provides the necessary insight into how they can do their best.

What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?

Martha: I’ve been playing with that very question myself, because it’s the new year and I’m re-energizing my own business. I think the question is, “Am I living my passion doing things that light me up?”

I guess that sounds a little more touchy-feely than I really am as a person; however, that’s been an impactful question for me.

Am I living my passion doing things that light me up?‌‌

If I am busy with things divergent from my passion, I am not contributing or having the impact I know I am capable of. I am not being of service to my clients or my community and I am depleting myself. I think the question is about finding balance and joy in spending my professional time doing things that are meaningful to me.

What are some of the topics that come in discussions in the work that you do?

Martha: I have been quite active and involved with both the Organizational Development (OD) Network and the Founders to the Future Gathering. I just finished my tenure on the OD Network Board of Directors, on which I served as the Chair of the Board of Trustees last year.

Within these groups there is much conversation regarding the future of organization development and the real and perceived value that we, as practitioners, bring. This has largely been a domestic conversation. International colleagues in China, Europe, and Australia are more focused on helping organizations than on defining what OD is. From my perspective, within the United States the profession – my profession – of Organization Development has gotten diluted by a lot of other disciplines that are almost subsets of the broader organization development discipline.

I’m a big proponent of certification for organization development practitioners. Much as lawyers take the bar exam to practice law and doctors must be board certified, there needs to be a minimum standard based on a demonstrated capability to practice this profession.

The OD community has spent years swirling on the definition of our work and required competencies. In that time, related fields and OD sub-specialties have developed niches and credentialing. Requirements for these credentials frequently appear as requirements in both private and federal service contracts. Examples include the International Coaching Federation, the Change Management Institute, and numerous certificates offered by for profit entities. Many people with these credentials will promote themselves as OD practitioners when the lack the comprehensive, proven systems theory, behavioral science education, and applied experience. Of course, the challenge then comes in establishing a baseline or minimum standard for practitioners. There is no common understanding of how an organization’s health and well-being can be helped – or hindered.

Yes, clearly I’m a proponent of certification. People have asked me why I am so adamant about my position. Simply stated, it is truly about wanting to make sure that we first do no harm as OD practitioners, as we work to create workplaces in which employees can thrive, customers are delighted, and businesses and organizations can achieve sustainable success.


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