Role Descriptions vs. Job Descriptions: Avoiding Uncertainty Through Individual Roles

As a CEO or key executive, chances are that you’ve experienced in your workplace the issue of uncertainty. Missing deadlines, mixing up projects, improperly communicating with clients — all of these things result from uncertainty. Not only that, but they can result in involuntarily sacrificing quality, productivity, and positive customer relationships.

Whether employees are unsure of what tasks they’re responsible for, leaders are unsure of what they should be managing, or executives are mishandling projects and delegation, there is no room for uncertainty in business. Through my experience as a CEO and Vistage Master Chair, I have found the best way to avoid uncertainty in the workplace: role descriptions.

Role descriptions are clearly-defined and complete descriptions of all individual responsibilities. They leave no room for uncertainty or confusion, as these are all things that can hinder progress. Whether it be delegating responsibilities, assigning tasks, or clarifying goals, it is important for individuals to be aware of their roles, not just their jobs.

Role descriptions are much more effective than job descriptions, as they describe the overall expectations of an individual in a way which is much more specific than your typical job description. According to Dr. Lee Thayer, within his book, “Leadership: Thinking, Being, Doing,” “a role description is not another name for a ‘job description.’ A job description describes, more or less ambiguously, the activities that a person carried out in her job. Using job descriptions almost guarantees that the status quo will be maintained.” If you want to avoid uncertainty while helping your business stand out from rest, you will utilize role descriptions as opposed to job descriptions.

Dr. Thayer continues that “a role description, by contrast, describes unambiguously what a virtuoso in that role would be able to accomplish regardless of any adversity.” As you can see, a role description is much more specific, and therefore more helpful, than a job description. Specificity is crucial in attempting to remove any uncertainty in the workplace, as uncertainty thrives in vague situations.

According to Dr. Thayer, the biggest difference between job and role descriptions is that role descriptions emphasize accomplishment and performance, while job descriptions emphasize the actual activity. For example, a typical job description for someone working in sales could include things such as servicing existing accounts, obtaining orders, organizing work schedules, and keeping management informed with daily call reports. However, a role description for the same position could include something along the lines of leading in the generation of performance numbers that exceed those of the industry, or developing the business unit into the best in the business by a certain measure.

Uncertainty comes in many forms, and it often results from a lack of proper organization. Though organization of a company can be difficult, you need someone to fulfill each position. A company would not run successfully without a diverse group of people with their own individual responsibilities. Each business requires someone to fill the role of business making, someone to oversee operations, and someone to manage money. There is a reason companies have one CEO, a COO, other key executives, and sometimes a board of directors — the success of a business depends on clear organization and balanced leadership. For this reason, it is important for companies to utilize role descriptions to avoid uncertainty.

There are a number of problems with job descriptions. According to Dr. John Sullivan, prolific author, hiring expert, and professor of management at San Francisco State University, there are 17 major problems. Among these are that job descriptions are typically out of date, are not communicated clearly, are not available to others within the organization, and are not related to the employee’s performance appraisal.

The primary issues with job descriptions that are resolved through the use of role descriptions include that job descriptions focus on the past, while role descriptions focus on the future. Instead of what employees have been doing, what does the company need to be doing? How can things be done differently in the future in order to increase success? To improve a company’s performance, you should not be focusing on what has been done in the past, as you are trying to move forward.

Also, job descriptions are often vague, and include meaningless statements such as “work with” and “contribute to.” These statements don’t explain to the employees being hired what they will actually be expected to do — what does it mean to work with someone, or to contribute to something? Job descriptions use language that glazes over the actual responsibilities and leaves employees to wonder and fill in the gaps. There is little room within this type of language to examine how exactly their performance is being measured. This is where the uncertainty arises, and this is why clarity and specificity are so important.

When companies and key executives utilize role descriptions instead of job descriptions, the benefits are evident. According to Kevin Pickhardt, CEO of Pharos International, role descriptions are for the purpose of creating room for growth and learning. When supervisors focus only on performance goals, they limit the imagination of the workers. He states that “a good role description enables people to surpass the imagination of the supervisor” and that role descriptions help to create a structure in which people become engaged and focused on both learning and growth.

However, a problem can arise when using role descriptions — taking on too much responsibility at once. Because role descriptions are so specific, it can be easy for a business leader to assume that they can manage more tasks or responsibilities at one time than is realistic or even possible. This leads to them making various performance goals for themselves, the employees, or the company, which can lead to further uncertainty.

If there are too many performance goals, or if the performance goals become too broad, your business can fall into the same type of issues it faced with the job descriptions. For this reason, Kevin Pickhardt recommends what he calls the “essential three,” or three main performance goals. It can be difficult for a business to focus on more than three at a time, and it is crucial to focus on performance and action. Above all, clarity and specificity are key. Role descriptions can assist in the creation of three realistic performance goals.

Bottom Line:

Uncertainty in any form can be an issue in the workplace. Though it typically results from improper organization or the use of job descriptions, this can be remedied through the utilization of role descriptions.
Role descriptions can help business leaders and employees alike in limiting uncertainty in the workplace by being more specific and more accurate. The creation of attainable, measurable performance goals is just one perk that results from role descriptions. Through my Vistage NYC groups, you and your company can learn how to effectively remove uncertainty from your workplace and use role descriptions to your advantage.