The Case For Role Ambiguity

“What’s my role?”

Answer this question well, your team will have role clarity, and a team with role clarity is one sign of good leadership.

Yes, and …

Among the folks I have worked with, those who seemed to perform well, had the most fun, and inspired others more reliably, were those who always went “outside” of their role.
Indra Nooyi, former chairperson and chief executive officer of PepsiCo, touched on role clarity when she wrote about how she got promoted in the corporate world:

Be really good at your job, then look at your role from a broader, higher viewpoint. Figure out how else you can contribute around you, and make your job bigger. That’s how you will be promoted because your job is already bigger.

Clearly, there is strong evidence that some ambiguity in our roles is constructive. Therefore as a boss, are there ways we can drag our teams into the abyss between “what am I supposed to do” and “what am I allowed to do” and make something good from it? I think so.

Instead of putting pressure onto yourself and your staff that roles have to be defined and rigid, aim it co-evolving the roles with your team. Consider role definition as one continuous exploration, one continuous mistake. Embrace a bit of role ambiguity.

How? Try these 3 steps:

  1. Agree upon the role and responsibilities per the job description, establish strong foundations first.
  2. Ask your team member to write down one thing he/she finds intriguing and fun to do, outside of what’s agreed upon in step 1.
  3. No matter what your team members come up with, fully and truly support it, with actions.

I know. This sounds risky. What if my staff comes up with something completely irrelevant? What if my staff fxxks with me? (Well, frankly, if your staff chooses to behave like this, you need to work on other things first.)

Your staff will likely be confused and scared to come up with anything meaningful. They will likely be guessing what you “actually” want. They will be stressed out about coming up the wrong or dumb or “not-bold-enough” idea. They might think this is yet another convoluted scheme of yours to fire them.

That’s why it’s actually you, the boss, who needs to be the courageous and disciplined one and follow through with the promise that you will support them NO MATTER WHAT THEY COME UP WITH, for better, for worse, till death do you part. I came to believe in this approach because I had a boss who dragged me into this kind of ambiguity and hand-held me to grow my own role.

This was back in 2006, when I became the sales manager of footwear at Nike in Hong Kong. We were struggling with the sales of basketball shoes. We investigated our sales channel, reviewed our segmentation, devised new incentive programs, and did everything we could within the sales function to try to boost sales. But I wanted to look at sponsorships in high school basketball teams and see if there were things we could do there.

Team sponsorship was the function of the sports marketing team and at that time they didn’t have the resources to look into high school sports teams. It would take quite a bit of manpower to conduct the study. I asked my boss if my team could study the market. He said yes, but also gave me 3 goals:

This side project could not distract my team from our core role – selling. We were expected to continue to exceed our targets.

This side project could only impact morale positively. He expected my team to be more motivated after this stretch project.

The output of this project needed to be useful and the sports marketing director would be the adjudicator of that.

Next, he coached me to achieve these goals. He focused me when I was distracted, nudged me to pay attention to my team, sounded off ideas with me, and motivated me when shxt got hard. He truly let me do what I wanted to explore, and truly supported me with real actions. We had a lot of fun, learned a lot about the high school basketball scene, brought in additional sales from “teamsales,” and paved the way to my next role – Sales Director for basketball in Nike China.

What do you think? Does this sound too ambiguous? Or have you had experiences where you were supported to go beyond your role?