‘When no one is responsible for something, it doesn’t get done.’ – Justin Rosenstein

True teamwork has never been a simple task, but in recent years, it has become even more multifaceted. As teams are becoming more global, virtual, and project-driven, leadership needs to be at the top of their game to clarify roles and communicate responsibilities.

Duplication of effort and confusion around responsibilities can increase frustration and stress, and potentially create conflict in teams, says Professor Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe from the Real World Group.

A network of teams replaces organograms.

Putting the 21st-century business under the spotlight, a growing number of leading companies are reworking their business structure. The traditional hierarchical organogram is making way for teamwork. Microsoft, for instance, says that their workforce is on twice as many teams as they were five years ago.

Businesses are reinventing themselves to operate as interactive networks of teams to stay ahead of the challenges associated with a VUKA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment.

New technologies help businesses extend participation on projects to an ever-growing number of contributors, allowing companies to tap into a wide variety of knowledge and expertise.

Within the fluid matrix of a network of teams, the possible combinations of participants are endless. As a team reaches their objective and dissolves, newly available members slot into existing units (or coagulate into new teams entirely). As such, the possibility grows exponentially to solve business problems because members organise themselves into novel clusters of potential.

However, the fluidity of this interconnected network of teams implies that roles and responsibilities are not rigid. Leadership needs to take firm control of communicating expectations and objectives associated with each role.

Role definition affects the team’s potential and performance.

Roles must be clearly defined and congruent with each assignee’s abilities. Role description must be exhaustive and cover all tasks and objectives. The key to tapping into the inherent synergy of the team is precise task delegation, based on various strengths of its members.

A 2013 study of interconnected and multidisciplinary teams found that in-depth role clarity had a marked positive influence on the quality of team outcomes and an overall improvement in performance as well as on interpersonal wellbeing.

Role ambiguity is one of the most noteworthy barriers to team effectiveness. Unfortunately, many a manager confuses role clarity with job descriptions. For most employees, a job description is a document against which they were recruited. However, a job description seldom defines role responsibility in an in-depth way.

A document cannot replace a synergistic discussion between the leader and the participant. Nor can it replace interaction between the members of the team. Comprehensive and continuous unpacking of a participant’s responsibilities should happen in person within a trusting environment.

Role clarity is a prerequisite for effective team performance in general. To take a team from good to great, however, leaders would need to do more than merely describe functions and duties. Each participant needs to have a clear grasp of his or her roles and responsibilities in achieving the shared purpose. Each contributor must also have a detailed understanding of the functions of all other team members and how the parts interconnect with each other.

In defining roles, Elite Teams ascribe to a collective model of teamwork.

To elevate a team from a great team to a high-performing – or Elite – unit, the collective need to share a mutual mental model of teamwork. A research quartet, led by Professor of Leadership Bradley Kirkman, found that this shared phycological agreement of what defines teamwork sets high-performing teams apart from good-enough and mediocre teams.

The collective model of teamwork states that, over and above the fact that team members must understand their own roles and responsibilities (well as those of their colleagues), participants should also have a clear plan on interacting with each other during adversity or external role conflict.

Team members also need to agree on which tasks take priority in which scenario, as quick-changing circumstances may dictate a change of team priorities.

Even with unlimited potential, the team will still have to make do with limited resources. Colleagues need to agree on allocated resources for each task.

Resources are not limited to budget but also include facilities, support staff, equipment, software and time distribution. Leadership should decisively communicate the team’s decision-making control over resource allocation. In the same spirit, leaders should also be clear about the team’s decision-making mandate.

When participants are uncertain about decision-making protocol, they feel unsure about the next step, which affects their self-confidence and engagement. The hesitation of one person in the unit may hinder the progression of the entire team.

Teams must be able to identify problems and opportunities, evaluate their options for moving forward, and then make necessary trade-offs and decisions about how to proceed.

Undoubtedly, the team needs to address pressing matters which might evoke conflict or stir emotion. Team members, therefore, need psychological safety as a prerequisite to coordinate group-dynamic, predict one another’s behaviour and make decisions collectively on the fly.

When boiled down to the essence, the team’s mental model entails two factors: accuracy (are we taking the correct action at the right time?) and collective approval (do we all agree on what we need to do?)

When Elite Team members share a concrete understanding of what needs to be done and how their roles — and the roles of others — fit into the big picture, they are well-positioned to respond to adversity effectively, and without hesitation. This confidence, in turn, cultivates cooperation and promotes team cohesion.

The cascading effect of diligent role definition.

Cohesion is a state in which members maintain bonds that link them to one another or the entire unit. Cohesive units don’t happen by chance – it takes skilled leadership and team persistence. Team networks with a high degree of cohesion provide a free stream of information and build trust amongst participants, which increases collaboration, which, in turn, improves performance.

Research has shown that, when a team perceives a task as one that requires creativity and implicit or explicit permission to not go along with groupthink, its members are more likely to invest more time and energy in collaboration.

Defining roles and responsibilities might seem like a humdrum task. However, genuinely investing time and brainpower in this seemingly routine undertaking often has a cascading effect on the performance status of the entire team.


Kraaijenbrink, J. (2018). What Does VUCA Really Mean? Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeroenkraaijenbrink/2018/12/19/what-does-vuca-really-mean/#3ab6c5a517d6.

Rosenstein, J. How to lead with clarity of purpose, plan, and responsibility. Retrieved from https://wavelength.asana.com/types-clarity-high-performing-teams/.

Kirkman, B., Stoverink, A.C., Mistry, S., & Rosen, B. (2019). The 4 Things Resilient Teams Do. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/07/the-4-things-resilient-teams-do.

Alimo-Metcalfe, B., Alban-Metcalfe, J. (2018). Five principles of high-performing teams. Retrieved from https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/five-principles-of-high-performing-teams/.

Deloitte. (2015). CFO Insights: Diagnosing your team—and curing its ills. Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/tr/Documents/finance-transformation/cfo-insights-diagnosing-team-curing-ills.pdf.

McDowell, T., Agarwal, D., & Miller, D. (2016). Organizational design. Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2016/organizational-models-network-of-teams.html.

Juneja, P. (2015). Clarity of roles within a team. Retrieved from https://www.managementstudyguide.com/clarity-of-roles-within-a-team.htm.

Organisational Diagnostics & Development. (n,d). Teams with Role Clarity are substantially more successful than teams without. Retrieved from http://www.theoddcompany.ie/oddblog/teams-with-role-clarity-are-substantially-more-successful-than-teams-without/.

Frisch, B. (2008). When Teams Can’t Decide. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2008/11/when-teams-cant-decide.

Madden, D. (2018). Top-Performing Leadership Teams Use This 1 Decision-Making Hack. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/debbie-madden/top-performing-leadership-teams-use-this-1-decision-making-hack.html.

Allen, K. How to Create High-Performance Decision-Making Teams. Retrieved from


Katzenbach, J.R., & Smith, D.K. (1993). The Discipline of Teams. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/1993/03/the-discipline-of-teams-2.

Erickson, T. (2012). The Biggest Mistake You (Probably) Make with Teams. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-biggest-mistake-you-probab.

Shambrook, C. (n,d). Role clarity in teams. Retrieved from https://www.theperformanceroom.co.uk/role-clarity-in-teams/.

Moga, B. (2017). High Performing Teams: What Are They and How Do I Build One? Retrieved from https://activecollab.com/blog/collaboration/high-performing-teams.

Enjoyed our thinking?
Get in touch to understand how we can support you.