Blog Top Image-Feb-15-2024-08-47-41-1367-PM

Let Me be Clear

Ever had things not pan out exactly the way you wanted them to on a given project or initiative?  It doesn’t meet expectations, it needs to be reworked, and the team is struggling with what they’re doing? According to the experts, one of the leading likely causes of this is a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities. So how do you recognize it, and what can you do about it? Let's follow an example and find out what our options and our own responsibilities might be if we find ourselves in this situation. 


Here’s the scenario: Project Manager Clarence is in a bit of a rough spot. Things have been behind on the project he’s currently leading a team to complete. His team is working as hard as they can, but one member has not managed to deliver, and it’s not the first time. She's just not accomplishing the goals that she has agreed to, and it’s unfortunately causing delays. Clarence heads over to the office of his colleague and the overseer of the project, Patricia, for insight and direction. She listens to all the problems he’s facing and hears the frustration he’s feeling. After a pause, Patricia offers Clarence three options, a bit like one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories from when they were kids, as well as what she believes the outcome of each will be, both immediate and long term. 


Option 1 - Patricia says, "Clarence, I can see you've just had it!  Let's boot Stacy off the project".  

Immediate Outcome: HR is called, Stacy's stuff is packed in a box, and she is unceremoniously transferred to a different project, department, or employer.  

Long Term Outcome: Clarence is now left short-staffed on his project. Unfortunately, since no one else has the expertise Stacy had, the project reaching completion before the deadline is now at risk. The project falls several months behind, and Clarence becomes known for his knee-jerk reactions. 

That one doesn’t sit right with Clarence, and not just because it would make him the bad guy. He says he does not want to proceed with this one and asks for the next option. 


Option 2 - Patricia says, "Clarence, I noticed the roles & responsibilities doc hasn't been published in a while. Let's call a team meeting and yell at everyone on the team for not doing what they're supposed to do. We'll make sure everyone has the document, and if there are any more slip-ups, we'll give the offending person the what-for.” 

Immediate Outcome: The twelve individuals all working on the team are called into an abrupt meeting none of them have planned for. Three of them barely engage and hold side-bar discussions that are distracting. Four of them become irritated at the waste of time since they already know their roles and responsibilities and decide to use this as an excuse to grumble about Clarence later. Two take immediate offense, thinking the conversation was directed at them, and decide to drop everything they're doing as a protest. One starts pointing fingers at what everyone else is doing wrong, and two, including Stacy, don't even bother coming to the meeting.  

Long Term Outcome: The project team loses three weeks of productivity while team members churn about the “stupid meeting” they had to attend, and as a side effect, their desire to do the project—and as a result, the quality of their work—declines significantly. Stacy's behavior doesn't change. Clarence finds them sliding further and further backwards with the deadline fast approaching. 

Clarence knows that this isn’t the way he wants to communicate with his team. He likes to keep the lines of communication open, and to deliver firm but gentle feedback. Yelling won’t solve anything, and so he asks to pass on this option too. 


Option 3 - Patricia says, "Clarence, let's think this through and figure out the right next steps." 

Immediate outcome: Patricia and Clarence spend a couple of hours together where she coaches him in leadership. Here are some of the coaching questions she asked him that day:

  1. “How well do you know Stacy?” 
    This is a great beginning question - first and foremost, let’s make sure we know the people on our team. By this, I mean having a good understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, interests, and pet peeves, but also finding out who they are as people. Clarence can find out what motivates Stacy and their level of awareness about their own skill set. This can help provide insight into the project roles they may see themselves fitting into, or where he could suggest a specific role for them. 

  2. “How does Stacy's role align with her skills?” 
    Here’s where Patricia and Clarence can determine if there's a mismatch between Stacy and the role they're expected to play. The two can brainstorm solutions such as coaching, a team adjustment where the individual can be partnered with a more experienced team member or adjusting and fine-tuning the role and its expectations to create a better match with Stacy. 

  3. How well does Stacy understand and embrace her role?” 
    Assuming Clarence understands Stacy’s communication style, preference, and current mood, there are a variety of methods he can use to communicate the role expectations. He could point to where they’re written in the Project One-Sheet or type it up in an email. Sometimes a quick 1:1 can be more effective. It’s good practice for the two to set up regular check-in opportunities to ensure they’re consistently on the same page. 

  4.  “How well do other team members understand and embrace Stacy's role?
    Is it a standard, easily definable role? If so, Clarence can ensure the definition is documented and clearly communicated to everyone who needs to know. If it's a highly irregular role, let’s make a clear case for the unique nature of the role and why the project demands it.

  5. “Have you told Stacy about your concerns?”
    Clarence will need to communicate with the individual (in a way that best meets their communication preferences) and express his concern in a non-threatening way. He’ll use specific examples (avoiding generalizations like "always" or "never", and being careful not to exaggerate), and ask for their input on what's going on. The two can use the information provided to help create specific expectations and correct the current issue. 

When Clarence next goes to speak to his team, he applies what Patricia has taught him to find the resolution to the problem. He’s glad that Patricia asked him all those questions, because without the perspective they gave, he might’ve leaned towards that first option, at least in his head, hoping that it would just work out in the end.

Long term outcome: Clarence gets to know his team better. The root cause of the recent problems with Stacy turns out to be a personal issue that's been distracting her, combined with a lack of clarity about the critical nature of her role. Based on Clarence's concerns, Stacy takes her project role to heart more, and asks for help with some of the things that have fallen behind. A couple of members of the project team pitch in to help get Stacy through this tough spot, and she realizes that she hopes she can return the favor next time around. Inspired by success at work, Stacy can work through the personal issue with greater confidence. Others notice a change in Stacy, ask her about it, and she glows about the way Clarence reached out to her, and how great her project team is. The project gets back on track, and the team continues to demonstrate a united spirit that helps them deliver successfully, even in the roughest of moments.  


When it comes to Project Management, working as a cohesive team to solve issues has often a great pathway to success, and it usually starts with the first step of making an authentic human connection with the person in front of you to ensure role clarity and role alignment.  How about you? How is your team doing right now? What can you try to set clear expectations and help meet them?

Topics: Sinikka Waugh, Project Management & Business Analysis

Sinikka Waugh

About the Author

Sinikka Waugh

Sinikka Waugh is a recognized leader in understanding people and in adapting tools, techniques, and processes to meet the demands of the situation at hand. Since 2006, Sinikka has provided compassionate leadership in transformation initiatives. When she isn’t in front of a class, she enjoys putting her background in English and French Literature to work, by writing blogs about the subjects she teaches every day. Are you ready? If you are, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us!

Receive a weekly dose of inspiration in your inbox by signing up for our weekly newsletter