Why Job Role Clarity Should be the Foundation of Your Innovation Work

Emily Best
6 min readJan 11


The #1 thing you can do for employee engagement and company innovation is simpler than you think.

This past year at Film Forward we worked with over 30 enterprise clients to deliver our workplace capacity building program called Behaviors of Belonging which develops individuals, teams, and organizations to build more innovative and accountable workplaces. All of our programs at Film Forward, whether DEIB, leadership, or onboarding are focused on building greater psychological safety inside organizations. Psychological safety is the set of conditions (policies, practices, and interpersonal communication styles) that lead to top performing teams (Google’s Project Aristotle).

To kickoff our programs, we measure psychological safety in the organization to help us understand the gaps — what groups feel most and least safe? Who is most at risk of attrition? Our data also helps us identify the greatest areas of opportunity to close those gaps for our clients. After working with organizations across a wide range of industries: financial services, biotechnology, entertainment, national non-profit organizations, publishing (and more) we found one very surprising common thread. Regardless of industry, employees consistently score lowest in the answer to “I understand the expectations of my job and the process for fulfilling those expectations clearly.” And this aligns with other research we have seen that says up to 50% of employees report low job role clarity.

With a deeper dive into the qualitative data, some common themes emerged, as did some sharper relief around the downsides of this lack of clarity. The top three risks are:

  1. Burnout risk

Many companies have transitioned to hybrid or all remote work environments, making all boundaries pretty fuzzy. If you’re working from your living room, when do you say work is done? If you’re not clear about how to succeed in your role, how do you know when you’ve accomplished a goal and that it was the right goal? This leads employees to feeling that work is always on, or that they are spinning their wheels or not making progress.

2. Instances of bias or perceived bias in the performance review process

How can an employee know they are being evaluated fairly if they were never clear on what success for their role looked like? Evaluations that occur without job role clarity can just feel, like, someone’s opinion, man. (If you know this film reference, 10,000 bonus points.)

3. Difficult/less innovative decision making

If I’m not sure about what’s in and out of scope for my role, I might constantly pull in other people into pointless meetings until maybe a decision emerges. Innovation requires that people feel comfortable taking risks in order to achieve great outcomes. If I’m not sure what a great outcome looks like for me in my role, I’m not as likely to take smart risks or manage trade offs well because the upside of those risks won’t be clear to me. And, lack of clarity can make holding anyone accountable for decision making very challenging!

We have all been Brick Tamland at some point.

So what can managers do about this? Like, next week?

  1. Review job descriptions with your team

Sit down with the members of your team and make sure you are aligned on what is in and out of scope, what the metrics of success for that role are, and the time horizon for measuring that success. All of this should be written down in that job description. When it comes time for performance reviews, you’ll be working off the same document, clear about how actual performance stacked up against expectations.

2. Establish reasonable working hours

Draw up best practices for clarifying when we’re working and when we’re not working. This is especially important for remote/hybrid teams but I have heard horror stories across all workplaces about the expectation to be available 24/7. Set work hours in your calendars and on your team comms channels (like Slack or Teams). Account for time zone differences so everyone’s working hours are accounted for and weighted equally. I always hope I don’t have to say this, but a salary does not entitle an employer to 24/7 of an employee’s time. Make sure the policies and best practices (as well as actual workplace practices) reinforce that.

3. Clarify decision-makers vs stakeholders

I love this exercise. In order for any team, but especially distributed or hybrid teams, to work quickly and effectively, every member of the team should be clear on where they are a decision maker versus a stakeholder. It seems simple but the two really should go together. A decision maker calls the shots, and stakeholders are the team members most impacted by their decisions (or who have crucial information relating to the decision). Stakeholders should expect meaningful consultation, but do not make the ultimate decision. Defining who the stakeholders are for the decision-makers can prevent the sort of unilateral decision-making that can sow discord, and encourage the solicitation of ideas within a team. Defining decision makers can make it clear who is bearing the risk of those decisions in a team (which should also be reflected in their title and compensation), and it can also reveal if too much power is concentrated in one place, creating a bottle-neck. This exercise can also help clarify who should be in certain meetings, who doesn’t need to be bothered, and what decisions can be made independently so that each member of the team can do their work with as few barriers as possible.

4. Contextualize their role within wider company strategy

Job role clarity must include how the function fits into the overall company strategy — that’s when employees feel most engaged in their work. This can be hardest in moments of transition for a company (leadership change, direction change, mergers and acquisitions, etc) or for an employee (new employee, new team, new leader). However, in moments of transition, this kind of clarity helps give employees a sense of stability and control in otherwise uncertain times. Sometimes just hearing “It’s ok if we don’t know how to make this decision right now. We’re waiting for more information” is a huge relief!

For what it’s worth, 69% of employees say they’d work harder if they were better appreciated. If managers and team members are clear about the metrics for success, it’s super easy to recognize when someone is doing a great job! So often we believe that belonging in an organization is only built through soft skills programs — and those are really, really important — but interpersonal skills do not solve the challenges posed by lack of job role clarity. Too much reliance on interpersonal skills turns a workplace into a political landscape (we have all worked at these places). If everyone is clear about their roles and how they fit together, it’s easier to get lots of different kinds of people working together. They will feel safer taking risks, making decisions and putting their best ideas forward.

Let’s not force everyone to become a politician.

If you’d like to learn more about how we measure psychological safety and generate executive insights with clear opportunities, visit filmforward.io and fill out the form at the bottom of the page. If you’d like to see our template for job descriptions — we’re happy to share it. Leave that in the comments and we’ll send it through when we respond!



Emily Best

Founder&CEO @seedandspark. Mom. Persistent AF. Co-Creator of @FckYesSeries