The impact of unclear responsibilities and expectations on people and work

This post tries to summarize all the negative impacts of not having clear responsibilities and expectations for individuals in a team or a company.

70% of employees are avoiding difficult conversations with their boss, colleagues, or direct reports. Workplace health is suffering as a result (

Unclear roles and responsibilities impact communication within a group and a company. Communication is clearer when it is clear who is responsible for what, what we can expect from him, and who needs to be informed when a certain decision or action was taken by a person. It is not just clear with whom you need to communicate; you know also on what you need to communicate. A conversation becomes difficult when you want to discuss something unclear and ambiguous. It is easy to discuss with Jay why the coffee machine is not clean when we all know that Jay is responsible for that. It is tougher when that is an unclear expectation.

The main complaint from most employee engagement surveys is communication. Clear, public and searchable responsibilities and expectations can improve communication.

Customer satisfaction
Unclear responsibilities and expectations will impact customer satisfaction! Do you remember when two different representatives of the same company approach you (as a customer) with more or less the same message?

Unclear responsibilities can bring multiple people performing the same task. It’s annoying internally, but the impact on customers is something that you want to prevent as much as you can.
Everyone wants to make the customer happy, but without clear responsibilities, people will think they need to contract the same customer. You know what is the impact. Unclear expectations can cause a more harmful impact on customers (and the business). Unclear expectations can cause duplication of the same effort or a complete drop off of the task.

Tension and conflict
82% of respondents admitted that they have “limited to no” ability to hold others accountable successfully. On the other hand, 91% of respondents said they would rank “improving the ability to hold others accountable in an effective way” as one of the top leadership development needs of their organization (HRDIVE).

Lack of accountability and expectations clarity can lead to tension and conflict between workers. There are two common scenarios. You found out that someone is doing part of your work, or you have an expectation that someone needs to do something but he never heard about it. In both scenarios slowly, but surely a tension will develop and it will blow out with emotions and personalities. 

We can easily prevent those scenarios by providing one location where everyone can see who is responsible for what. This simple central place, if it’s updated and easy to use, can surface a lot of potential conflicts before they become the hot discussion in the coffee area.

Undefined work expectations were one of the top five work stress factors, according to a 2013 Harris Interactive poll.
According to a survey out this week from Chicago-based ComPsych, 31 percent of the over 2,000 survey respondents “unclear expectations from supervisors.”  to the most stressful when experiencing change at work 
Poorly defined or conflicted roles in a person’s job can be a stressor for workers. Poor role definition arises from a lack of clarity in workers’ objectives, key accountabilities, their co-workers’ expectations of them and the overall scope or responsibilities of their job. This creates a set of expectation in people’s mind that or exceed real expectation and create stress or end up with aiming at lower expectation than the reality that ends up with pressure from coworkers and stress.
Want to reduce stress at work? make sure everyone accountabilities and expectations are clear, updated and available.

Vague responsibilities and expectations negatively impact any feedback (preferred) or the conservative evaluation (if still done). When the last time that you gave feedback or evaluation to someone, and you could do it against a list of what he is responsible for and a definition of what the organization expects from him? If you didn’t have this list, you base your feedback on latest events and it is far from being holistic and reflects someone’s contribution.

Having a clear definition of responsibilities and expectations is a good practice. But when those definitions are static, it creates even worse problems to any group or company. When you hold people accountable to a static list, they will follow just the list. Don’t expect them to take on a new responsibility. Make sure that responsibilities and expectations are dynamic.

Every job description has a nice modest decoration at the bottom in the form of this sentence: “other duties as assigned”. The point is to convey that employees are sometimes asked to be a team player and complete tasks outside their normal daily routines. In reality, people find themselves performing many tasks that they never sigh to do, on top of all the tasks they sign off. Now when they are coming to work, they know that they will get more responsibilities they are accountable for, with no benefits (when the incentive is based on money, people expect more money when they are getting more responsibilities). The result of this asymmetric relationship is a decrease in people’s motivation. 

Adopting a solution that credit people for any new responsibilities can be the right vehicle to add more responsibilities while keeping people in the same motivation level.

Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility. Sigmund Freud Quotes.

I don’t like to use the term training; I love learning. Training teaches people to do a repetitive task. Teaching open minds for endless opportunities. Whatever it is training or teaching that you are using to improve people, without clear definitions of what they are responsible for, assets that they need to manage and what are other people’s expectations from them, how someone knows what the training/learning that he should focus on? Most of the people want to better at what they are doing, regretfully “what they are doing” is a vague definition for them. 

Role, responsibilities and expectations confusion on a team is like a computer virus: it can pop up when you least expect it, and you may not even notice it’s there until it’s already wreaked chaos on your team’s performance.  This unclarity follows the chaos bifurcation when it reaches a certain (and low) ratio between people and unclarity, its explode in everyone’s face. The impact on stress, motivation, conflicts, communication, and even customers eventually causes a big impact on performance. 

This severe performance issue can be easily mitigated if responsibilities and expectations will be clearly defined and publically available for everyone to search.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.  Stanislaw Lec
There is a correlation between unclear definitions of responsibilities and not taking accountability. When definitions are vague, people can (if they want) perform vague definitions as they understand them and not to take accountability of gray areas in the definition. This is true for missing accountability in the definition, an unclear definition, or duplication of the accountabilities for two different people. 


Collaboration, trust, openness, and vulnerabilities are essential to creativity. You can’t expect any of them in an environment where tensions and mistrust are common. When misunderstandings and conflicts happen because of unclear expectations or vague responsibilities, people will think twice if they will share their thoughts and ideas with others. Even the appetitive to take a risk and fail will shrink to a minimum if you have to bear the consequences of failure with not a supportive group of people. 

Creativity is one engine needed for any company success. That is yet another reason why having clear responsibilities and expectations available for everyone to be easily used is so important for any company.

collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood — in fact, when individuals feel their role is bounded in ways that allow them to do a significant portion of their work independently. 

1 thought on “The impact of unclear responsibilities and expectations on people and work”

  1. Pingback: California Intercontinental University | Communicating Expectations

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