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Submitted by US101 on


What is an effective (and preferbly efficient) way to clarify roles and responsibilities, both within a group and between two different departments?

This seems to be endless converstaion. Why is this an endless conversation? I want to move beyond talking about this.

Part of the problem is lots of changes in our industry (telecomm), new managers, changing work processes, and poor communication between headquarters and regional offices.

These problems are not unique to my company. I've seen them in every company I've worked for.


stroker's picture

This is a great question! I share your frustration on what seems to be a universal going back and forth on who is supposed to do what in an organization. Very recently experienced this with Business Support departments in my organization. My approach has been:
1. develop relationships with the right people that can influence the situation towards a positive outcome from the other departments/teams
2. attempt to resolve issue directly with the source, and involve new found friends (developed relationships) as needed, initially as an FYI.. or "would appreciate your input on this as it affects your team"
3. avoid the blame game and drive all stakeholders involved towards a win-win outcome that clearly benefits everyone. this should leave those who push back for no valid reason, but to defer work being assigned to them that they should logically be accountable for, with no reason to push back anymore.
4. if this still doesn't work take it to the next level and get buy in from the department (either directly or thrugh my boss) to push the directive down.

I've found that a lot of people are slow to take responsibility for new things when they are not held accountable for it on paper. it may start eating into their cigarette breaks and long lunches when they take on additional responsibility. but i'm optmistic. i think i can influence each individual in my organization to be better and having a positive outlook definitely helps in those frustrating moments.

Mark's picture
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Not sure you're going to like the answer, but here it is:

I wouldn't spend hardly any time on this. Why go back and forth with someone over who is going to do what? If it's important for your team to do something, do it. If there's a gray area, offer to do the stuff your team is best at. If you don't get any help, look the person dead in the eye and do it all.

I think this is born from LACK OF RELATIONSHIPS. If you haven't done your relationship work, then you have to negotiate with someone. If that's the case, just use standard negotiating techniques (yes, future cast, but not immediate, though funnily enough, it's all about relationships).

If you have a relationship with the right person, just go to him or her, sit down, and hash it out. If there's a sticking point, take that for your team and move on.

[b]No work is getting done when we are busy deciding who is going to do the work.[/b]

Whatever less than efficient solution you come up with will be mitigated by the hours of back and forth and political capital you spend trying to engineer a deal, and by the inevitable org changes that are sure to come soon anyway.

What we're talking about here is the OPPOSITE of boundarylessness. Not good.

Are there exceptions for what you know to be political hot potatoes? Yep. Better know some folks you can call for help. (damn those relationships).

Okay, so stone me.


US101's picture
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Man you guys are posting really early in the morning 4:44 am! 2:17 am!

Mark and Stroker - I like both of your answers - it all boils down to strong relationships or lack there of.

Mark - I especially appreciate your advice about not spending/wasting time on this. If we just get good, value-added work done, the roles and responsibilities issue will work itself out.

One underlying factor is our culture of "FEAR." After several rounds of layoffs most people seem to be covering their ass 1st and focusing on contribution 2nd. Which is backwards in terms of not getting laid off in the future.

bteachman's picture
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I was hoping this may help motivate you a little. I had a very similar problem to you with not having a defined roles and responsibilities. Any thing that fell in the gray area the business group would just start calling people that they thought they could get to help till some one would pick up and say they could help.

Any call I got for help I either directly handled the call or got in touch with the person that could and then called back the user to let them know who would be helping them. Some times I had to handle calls that were considered a lower level problem or not part of my teams responsibilities. This ideal spread through out our team then our department. In a time where we were looking at possibly shrinking our department they took the team I was in and broke it up in to two teams and added five employees because of increased up time and satisfaction of business users. .

I know that this was not a normal result, but change does need to start somewhere. What better time then now?



PS. I am still waiting for my responsiblites to be defined

dbeene's picture

If faced with an interview question about describing a situation in which you had to work with someone that was difficult . . . would you use this example (below) . . . .

[quote="mahorstman"]Not sure you're going to like the answer, but here it is:

I wouldn't spend hardly any time on this. Why go back and forth with someone over who is going to do what? If it's important for your team to do something, do it. If there's a gray area, offer to do the stuff your team is best at. If you don't get any help, look the person dead in the eye and do it all.

///much snippage///

Maybe you'd describe the situation as: The roles/responsibilities were undefined or ambiguous . . . after trying to agree on roles/responsibilities but not really getting anywhere, I decided to cut my losses. I'm responsible and held accountable for certain deliverables. And I would not allow someone else's unwillingness to contribute to keep me from fulfilling my commitments.

In a behavioral interview, would you draw from this experience for your answer? Would you use two examples . . . one where the outcome you going it alone and another that was a bit more synergistic?


Mark's picture
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Help me understand your last point. Are you suggesting that I was being difficult, and my answer is the situation you want to describe in the interview?

Or that the other person in your original question was difficult and my answer didn't help you?

In either case, please accept my apologies. I had no intent of being rude or dismissive at all. So sorry that I wasn't clear.

If you don't mind, would you please restate the question/issue, and I'll try again?

Per your later comments in the post, I would generally agree with your approach, though you're right that it's not ideal. I NEVER intend for my answers on this forum to ever be confused with interview answers. Interviews are an artificial reality for which there are specific rules that are distinctly different from normal conversations, or forum posts. ;-)

Let me know!

It's a privilege, even when I mess up.


dbeene's picture

Hi Mark --

I did *not* think you were being difficult at all. In fact, I thought your response was very illuminating and helpful. I was trying to extend this thread into something that might be useful for an interview situation. (I may have been reading an interviewing thread just prior to this thread, so it was on my mind.)

Here was my train of thought.

[b]Original Topic:[/b] This thread was about how to clearly identify roles and responsibilities among different groups of people.

[b]Your Thoughts:[/b] (My paraphrase) If you don't have the relationships to do quickly work this out, don't waste your time on trying to talk about who is going to get this work or that work done. "No work is getting done when we are busy deciding who is going to do the work." Just do the work.

[b]My Thoughts (a tangent):[/b]: Interviewers like to understand how a candidate deals with difficult work situations. In this case, we're talking about different departments struggling with who does what work. And let's say you finally came to the conclusion that talking/negotiating with the other party is fruitless and you are simply going to have to do more (or much more) than what you think is your responsibility. The job gets done, the metrics are met, the delivery is made . . . with more work on your part though.

[b]My question:[/b] At some point much later, you're in an interview, and the interviewer asks you to describe a situation where you had to work with a difficult person. Would you recall this experience (above) as an example?

On one hand, it looks like you've demonstrated an ability to know when to cut your losses (the time you lose by simply talking about work) so that you can make your deliverables.

On the other hand, the scenario might like a communication breakdown or an inability to get the change you were wanting.


Apologies for not explaining my question very well the first time. Hopefully, I did better this time!

Thanks again for your work. One of the things that I appreciate from you, Mike, and others in the community is your credibility. The things you share aren't simply ramblings on what you think might work or might be better. They are things that you've found to be true or effective time and time again in your many and varied experiences. What a valuable resource!

Mark's picture
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All good.

I would only use it as an example if:

- I felt QUITE confident that not only did I have several points to make about my willingness to bend over backwards for this person and NO ONE would doubt my MOTIVATION...

- or my SKILLS, which are described in my answer

- AND, I had at least one other example where I WAS able to work through an issue with someone,

- preferably with a tougher situation, and a bigger outcome.

[i]At a broader level, interviewing is an artificial reality designed to keep people OUT. It has its own rules which are unusual and not to be taken lightly. Generally, ANY example which shows what could be construed as a failure (and the one you mention COULD) must be approached VERY delicately.[/i]

[b]Short answer: don't use it.[/b]