An increasingly ambiguous world impacts all of us. Effectively dealing with ambiguity is a life skill and a contemporary business imperative for employees and leaders at all levels and businesses of any size. Having a reliable way to clarify workplace ambiguity helps you avoid costly mistakes and improve performance. Unclear roles and responsibilities are one common workplace stressor. Whether being asked to do more with less or reporting to a new leader, when employees feel inefficient or unsure how to prioritize their work, it increases stress. Evidence from a global study by Gallup revealed that 49% of leaders and 42% of non-managers struggle with anxiety at work. So, how can you reduce workplace ambiguity? Here is one simple yet powerful tool busy leaders can successfully apply to deal with ambiguity.
The costly effects of not dealing with workplace ambiguity
As the world changes, businesses and individuals must change too. Organizational changes increase the opportunity for role ambiguity.
Role ambiguity is described as one employee's understanding of their job or organizational objectives being different from another's, leading to an unproductive workplace conflict or wasted efforts. Poor communications, unclear policies, or a general lack of workplace relationships are typical sources of role ambiguity.
Several studies have demonstrated that role ambiguity has significant negative personal and workplace results. One such study within the Big Four Public Accounting Firms showed that organizational role ambiguity led to:
increased work stress
increased employee turnover
In this study, role ambiguity significantly increased anxiety and physical and psychological stress at an individual level. Role ambiguity increases non-productive conflict and employee burnout even when a team has good working relationships.
How to deal with ambiguity
A RACI matrix is a simple and powerful tool for effectively dealing with role ambiguity. I have used this tool at the organization, team, and individual levels resulting in enhanced role clarity, improved workload balance, and decision-making.
RACI is an acronym for responsible, accountable, consult with, and informed. Each letter represents the roles and degree of involvement for a given organizational role or task:
Responsible: Who is ultimately responsible for doing the task?
Accountable: Who is the decision-maker and accountable that the job is successfully completed?
Consult with: Who needs to know the details and requirements so they can provide meaningful input to the task
Informed: Who needs to be kept aware of task updates?
An essential part of organizational consulting is helping individuals and teams gain clarity during change and dealing with role ambiguity created by the changes. Applying a RACI template in conjunction with a given change initiative is not intended to substitute for a robust change management plan. Instead, this tool creates additional awareness and understanding to support a given change.
How to create a RACI Matrix
Here are four steps to creating a RACI matrix for creating for dealing with role ambiguity.
RACI Creation Step 1: Select a team
As with most initiatives selecting the right team members to involve is essential to creating the most value. A critical quality step is to engage those closest to the work in creating the RACI. Additionally, you will want to include the manager and potentially the executive sponsor for the role.
RACI Creation Step 2: Identify tasks associated with the target role
Start with a high-level outline. Using a job description can be a good starting point. Then go back and break down the tasks into subtasks. For example, you could argue that an essential task for a knowledge worker is to turn on their computer. However, is it worthwhile to clarify who is responsible for this activity? This likely goes without saying. Getting too granular too early in creating the RACI can paralyze the team and overcomplicate the work.
RACI Creation Step 3: Align groups and individuals with RACI designations
Review each task, and identify the individual or group associated with each RACI designation. There will likely be differences of opinion at this step. It is important to surface the differences and then seek consensus. A common cause of the differences can come from differences of opinion on what is meant by definitions such as responsible vs. accountable. To help the team work through the differences, it is a good practice to write down the definitions and have them available to the team.
RACI Creation Step 4: Walk the matrix
After you create the RACI matrix, it is helpful to have those involved simulate a task and confirm with each responsible group that the level of their involvement is appropriate and that no groups or essential details that should be included were left out. It is easy to forget tasks when building these in a meeting. It's kind of like taking a familiar route to work each day and forgetting to recall the railroad tracks or stoplights you go through.
When conflict is associated with ambiguity, you should first consider utilizing an external facilitator. Establishing trust and clarifying expectations is an essential starting point for creating a valuable outcome.
The following short video provides a good overview and example of using a RACI matrix.
RACI Matrix example
I have enjoyed the Disney+ Star Wars series, The Mandalorian. I have used some key season one episode events in the table below to explain the RACI Matrix. "This is the way."
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Amiruddin, A. (2019). The mediating effect of work stress on the influence of time pressure, work-family conflict, and role ambiguity on audit quality reduction behavior. International Journal of Law and Management, 61(2), 434-454. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJLMA-09-2017-0223
McCormak, N. (2013). Managing Burnout in the workplace: A guide for information professionals. Science Direct. Chandos Publishing.
Wigert, B., & Pendell, R. (2023). 6 Trends Leaders Need to Navigate This Year. Gallup Workplace.