Whose Role is it Anyway?

Dwight Schrute, role confusion, bobblehead

One of my favorite running jokes in the early seasons of the “The Office” is the dispute over the role of Dwight Schrute. Dwight claims to be the Assistant Regional Manager of the Scranton, PA branch of Dunder Mifflin, a paper distribution company. Dwight’s boss and colleagues maintain that he’s the Assistant to the Regional Manager. Dwight often asserts his version of his title in comical, and often inappropriate, attempts to exert authority over his coworkers or to boost his ego. Hilarity ensues.

While the Dunder Mifflin team in “The Office” was made up of exaggerated caricatures of hapless office workers, part of the appeal of the show was that it had these (mostly) lovable misfits partake in very common, relatable workplace situations. The lack of clarity regarding Dwight’s title was exemplary of a common workplace dysfunction that I call “role confusion.”  How many of us have heard colleagues venting something along the lines of, “So-and-so just dumped all his extra work on me, but he’s not my boss!” or “I don’t have to do that task – that’s so-and-so’s job.” All of these problems fall into the category of role confusion.

Role confusion is the uncertainty people feel in the workplace when they are unsure of their responsibilities and their place in reporting structures. It can be caused by vague performance expectations from a supervisor, indistinct organizational or leadership structures, or unclear division of assignments among team members. In these situations, people often become keenly aware of whether they're doing more or less than their fair share, and whether their colleagues are pulling their weight. Supervisors may feel that their staff are not meeting their standards for productivity, and teammates can get angry if they feel that others are overstepping their authority.

These are all very common problems, especially in – but certainly not limited to – smaller workplaces that do not have a formal HR department or person. There are basic, infrastructure strengthening actions you can take to address these problems. These include:

  • Developing an organizational chart that includes not just the specific people, but the specific roles and titles, and how they relate to one another.
  • Listing all of the functions and responsibilities that are required by each department or team, and ensuring that each of these items is clearly assigned to one or more people. For the most critical functions, it is a good idea to also assign a backup person.
  • Having supervisors articulate performance expectations for their teams in writing, and communicate these expectations to each team member. These expectations should cover both the quality and volume of work to be performed, and should be used to evaluate performance.

The Dwight Shrute power grab made for great comedy in a fictional workplace, but role confusion is terrible for both productivity and office morale.  If these problems sound familiar to you and you are interested in tackling role confusion in your workplace, AIS Collaborations can help you! Don’t let a Dwight Schrute sow unease in your office.


Dwight Schrute bobblehead photo by Edwin & Kelly Tofslie (https://www.flickr.com/photos/tofslie/380840630/), licensed under CC BY 2.0. Cropped from original image.