Think about all the times your job went wrong in some way. Maybe you slept in and were late to work. Maybe you forgot to send an important email. Or you weren’t notified of a meeting that you really needed to attend. Or you upset a customer. Or you didn’t hit your quarterly goal. The list goes on and on.
Those problems don’t necessarily happen every day – they just come up from time to time. But what about problems in your job that happen more frequently? Problems that are perhaps built into the role itself or into your company’s culture?
The potential upsides of job roles include things like meaningfulness, a sense of belonging, feeling purposeful, pride, and so forth. Yet the downsides of job roles aren’t discussed nearly as often.
Or rather, the kinds of downsides I’m talking about. It’s easy to focus on negative topics at work because there’s no shortage of them. Gossip, aggression, violence, sabotage, discrimination, theft. Those topics are definitely interesting, but they’re not what’s on tap for this episode. Instead, I’ll explore the dark side of job roles through a more logistical lens.
I’ll be going over six topics throughout this episode, broken out into three sections. First I’ll go over the idea of what a role is. Then I’ll address role overload, role strain, and role conflict. Finally, I’ll discuss role underload and role ambiguity.
Before we can dive into the dark side of job roles, we need to understand what a role by itself is. A role is the part you play in a certain situation. The function you assume at a particular time.
You play a lot of different roles at any one time, and you change roles throughout your life. You go from being a baby to a child to a teenager to an adult. You’re a boyfriend or girlfriend, then a fiancée, then a husband or wife. Sometimes that role ends and now you’re a widow or a divorcee. You’re a father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, niece, sister, son, cousin.
And those are just family roles. Not to mention the parts you play in the various communities you’re a part of. Are you a member of a church or a musical band? Are you a thought leader on social media or a helpful voice on an online message board? Do you volunteer? Are you part of a non-profit committee? Do you have a hobby or interact with others who share your hobbies?
These are all different kinds of roles you play at any one time, and I’m barely scratching the surface here. Some roles are shorter, some are longer, some are frequent, some are rare. The point I’m making is that people are walking, talking constellations of various roles, most of which we don’t often see in the workplace.
And that’s the thing – I haven’t even mentioned organizational roles yet. There’s the job role, which is basically what you do at work. Your daily grind, what you’re most responsible for. But then there are other roles. Maybe you help out coworkers in a different team that often has little or nothing to do with your main job role. Maybe you’re a mentor to some employees, whether it’s part of a formal mentoring program or happened organically. Maybe you’re a mentee, being mentored by someone else. You could also be part of a short-term task force, special project, or initiative that’s going on in your company.
And then there’s position level, like individual contributor, supervisor, manager, director, executive. Position level is an organizational role that is the driving force of this podcast. To bring attention to those trials and tribulations, concerns and complexities, mysteries and mishaps about what it means to manage and lead people in an organization.
Even with everything I’ve listed out so far, I’ve only gone over different kinds of roles, not how people perceive those roles. From my perspective, I’m the main character in my life. And from your perspective, you’re the main character in yours. Everyone is the leading role in their own lives. Other main characters in our lives generally include people we’re really close to, like friends and family.
So then we get into supporting characters, supporting roles. These could be acquaintances, coworkers, extended family, friends we see every couple of years. Realistically, your team members are supporting characters in your overall life, and you’re a supporting character in theirs. But within organizational life, you’re both main characters to each other.
The main character in most stories is generally a good person, or at least works toward becoming a good person. We like to think we’re always the hero in our own story, even when we do bad things or make difficult decisions. The question then is: do your team members also believe you’re a hero?
The main takeaway from this first section is that there is a lot more to roles than most people give them credit for. At the beginning of this section I could’ve just said “Roles are the parts you play.” And that’s it. But I wanted to go into more detail to show how many roles one person can be playing at any one time, as well as the idea that how you perceive your role as a manager may look different from how your team members perceive your role. You want those perceptions to be aligned, using principles I’ve covered in other episodes to be the best manager you can be.
Now I’ll start talking about some dark sides of job roles.
The first one is role overload. This is when you don’t have the resources, generally time, to perform everything you need to. Or to put it another way, role overload occurs when certain demands exceed the resources that employees have.
Unfortunately, role overload is common for a lot of employees – they’re overworked and overstressed. Too much to do and not enough time to do it. To get everything done, or at least at a manageable level, employees often need to work 50-60 or more hours a week. Or they cut corners to get everything done, hurting quality because of overwhelming quantity.
This one’s always tricky to talk about because quite often, people managers don’t really have any control over how much work their teams are given. Role overload is more often a symptom of deeper problems in organizations. Like not hiring enough personnel, or going through lay-offs and expecting those who remain to pick up the slack.
But if the amount of work your employees do is within your control as a manager, try to place some kind of limit on how many hours they work every week. Too many managers and leaders believe that all productivity is created equal, that working 60 hours a week is more productive than working 40 hours a week, and working 80 hours a week is more productive than working 60 hours a week.
The problem with this idea is that employees are people, and people aren’t robots. They get tired. They lose energy. They can’t concentrate. After a certain amount of time, people just can’t be effective anymore. So even if it looks like they’re being productive by working 60, 70, 80 hours a week, oftentimes they’re not. It goes back to quality and quantity – we think that quality of performance remains consistent, even with a ridiculous quantity of working hours. And that just isn’t realistic.
The second dark side of job roles is what’s called role strain. This is when there’s some kind of tension across different roles in the same area of life. An example might make this one a little more clear.
Imagine that you have a role as a coworker to someone. You both work in the same team, same position level, and you’re friends with each other. However, you eventually get promoted to manage that team, so now you’re managing someone who is still your friend, but is no longer the same position level as you.
That’s an example of role strain. Your role as manager may now create tension, or strain, with your role as friend because of the change in power dynamics. You now have to worry about favoritism, not being too lenient on your friend, wondering whether things will be the same between you two, and so forth.
One way to help with role strain is to seek out guidance from a third party. Preferably someone who is impartial to your situation. Could be another manager in the organization, a friend or contact from another organization, or really anyone who you look up to and believe could be a mentor.
Alleviating role strain can never be done overnight because there are often multiple people involved in these situations. Like in the example, there’s you and your friend. You’d have to work out how to be a manager and a friend without that leading to favoritism, but at the same time your friend has to also learn and appreciate the new boundaries in your relationship.
The third and final idea of this section, role conflict, is like an expanded version of role strain. Remember in the previous section how I made a laundry list of all the roles you can be playing at any one time in your life? Like mother, student, volunteer, etc.? Role conflict occurs when there’s tension between those roles. So whereas role strain is about tension within one area of life, like work, role conflict is often about tension between roles across different areas of life.
Role conflict occurs because there’s some kind of interference or incompatibility between multiple roles in your life. The most common example is work-life balance. When you work too much, have a stressful job, have a physically or emotionally draining job, this can all impact your non-work life. What happens at work can influence, or interfere with, your ability to have a healthy life outside of work.
I’d say that role conflict is the most complicated of the three ideas I’ve talked about so far. Largely because of just how many roles people play, and how easy it is for one to negatively impact another. For this idea, I’d say to make sure you have open conversations with your team members. If they seem stressed or they do a lot of work outside their normal hours, ask them about it. See if they’re going through some kind of role conflict, and if they are, see what you can potentially do to help them out.
The main takeaway from this second section is that job roles inevitably create some kind of tension in your life. Could be due to having a lot demanded of you without having the resources to deliver on those demands. Could be due to incompatible roles that you play. Or it could be due to one role or set of roles monopolizing a large part of your life. As it is, I believe these are dark sides of job roles, ones that we should all be aware of and look out for.
I mentioned in the previous section that employees are often overworked and overstressed. They’ve got too much on their plates and not enough time or resources. Or, you know, role overload.
There’s an interesting phenomenon that is the opposite of this, which is role underload. That’s when employees don’t really have enough to do. Like think about the last time you went to a restaurant and the place was really empty, with several waitstaff just kind of hanging out in the back. At that particular time, those waitstaff were going through role underload – they didn’t have enough to do, so they hung out waiting for more customers to show up.
Take that a step further to a job that consistently has role underload. Like an employee is expected to work an eight-hour shift yet they get can get all their work done in two hours. If we’re expecting at least seven hours of productivity in that shift, then what can they do for the other five hours?
Well, they can hang out, surf the internet, watch movies, play games. Or walk around. Or talk with coworkers. Or maybe they just zone out while trying to make it look like they’re busy. None of these activities go toward any kind of meaningful productivity.
Although role underload might sound like a dream come true for those of you who are currently overloaded, it’s really not all that fun. It can be stressful in its own way, by being constantly bored, looking for something to do to be productive, or coming up with ways to look busy so you don’t lose your job.
Just as there’s a balancing act with not overloading your team members, you need to make sure you’re not underloading them either. It could be the case for some managers that, in trying to be mindful of not overloading their teams, they swing too far in the other direction by underloading certain team members.
This is one reason why setting and tracking goals is so important. Goals not only help place a ceiling on employee activity, to avoid overloading them, but they also place a floor on employee activity, to ensure there’s a certain minimum of productivity to avoid underloading them. And if a team member seems to consistently have too little to do, consider expanding their role and responsibilities.
That brings us to the final dark side of job roles: role ambiguity. Have you ever started a new job and after a while you didn’t really know what you were supposed to be doing? And this isn’t role underload, because there’s definitely tasks that need to be done. It’s just that you didn’t know what was expected of you, or how much of a responsibility was your job and how much was another person’s job.
That’s role ambiguity, or lacking clarity about what you should or shouldn’t be doing. It can be stressful because you’re uncertain about expectations and boundaries. This can lead to wasted efforts, of someone working on something that they shouldn’t have or didn’t have to at the time. Or it can have the opposite effect of simply inaction, with employees not doing anything because they don’t have clear expectations set out for them.
A lot of role ambiguity happens at the beginning of a job, whether it be someone who’s new to the company or someone who’s promoted into a new position. In episode 10 I reviewed the various stages that new hires should go through during their onboarding to maximize their first year in an organization. The same principles can be applied here, especially the first two stages of orientation and clarification.
As a manager, you should aim to minimize any uncertainty employees might have about their job roles. What are their goals, what are they responsible for, how is their performance measured, what are responsibilities that should be given to other people? You want to maximize clarity as early in the employee’s tenure as possible.
Likewise, teams change over time. They might go through minor adjustments in what they’re responsible for. Team outcomes or key performance indicators might change. Or there might even be large structural changes within teams. Each one of these events requires you, as a manager, to be very clear and transparent about expectations and boundaries. If you want to listen to an entire episode about setting boundaries, check out episode 18.
The main takeaway from this final section is that a path of clarity is important for employees. Whether that path is to ensure employees aren’t underloaded or feel ambiguous about what they should be doing, ultimately your goal is to provide clarity along that path. Set expectations for preferred and appropriate behaviors within a specific job role, guiding your team members along the way.
As a recap of this episode, I discussed what I believe are some dark sides to job roles. These include role overload, strain, conflict, underload, and ambiguity.
Some of these are difficult for you as a people manager to navigate because you may have little to no control over them, like role overload and conflict. But other aspects, like role strain and ambiguity, you can play a larger part in being a coach and providing guidance or clarity.
Overall, I wanted to talk about job roles for two reasons. First, I wanted to expose you to the various ways that job roles can be negative, at least from a kind of logistical or structural perspective. Second, and more importantly, I wanted to showcase that your team members will always have a lot going on in their lives, and it’s easy for some kind of imbalance, tension, or incompatibility to emerge. As with most other topic I’ve discussed, it goes back to having open dialogues with your employees. Appreciating and understanding their struggles and how you can support them to minimize the negative impact of those struggles.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries and Mishaps, where I’ll conduct an interview about trust in the workplace.