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How to Clarify Your Job Responsibilities with Your Boss

Dear Justin,

How do I ask for clarification of my role and responsibilities? It’s difficult to manage my time and expectations when my responsibilities are unclear and additional duties pop up at the last minute. This leaves me with multiple projects undone and stretched too thin, and yet I’m working 10- to 18-hour days. I have had multiple conversations with my manager to get clarification but seem to get nowhere. I feel out of options. Is there something I’m missing?

Seeking Clarification

Dear Seeking Clarification,

I have a feeling your question is common for our readers right now. Thanks for asking it. Consider these next steps:

  1. Have empathy for your manager. This might be difficult, but it might also be the most important thing you can do to transform the way this conversation goes between you and your manager. Why? Well, she is probably dealing with the same challenge you are. And when you consider that possibility, it will soften your emotions toward her and ultimately help you help her help you. (Read that again.) What I mean is this: she is likely feeling similarly to the way you feel. She might be getting vague answers from senior management, and that is likely frustrating for her. Help her see that she is doing the exact thing she wishes her boss wasn’t doing. Ask her to partner with you to stop the vagueness from continuing to cascade down, and work to influence the situation from where you stand. Contrast to prevent misunderstanding. The key to this conversation going well is to come off as a contributor craving focus, not a complainer craving less work. In fact, say that. Up front. A contrasting statement clarifies what you don’t intend and what you do intend. Something like this could be really helpful to set the stage: “I’m not trying to get out of work. I know everyone is slammed and feels overwhelmed. I simply want to focus on the right stuff and not be 50% done with 100% of the tasks.”
  2. Don’t let your manager off the hook. When you get an answer that still seems unclear, push to clarify. Ask some or all of the following questions: “Just to clarify, what is the measurable outcome you are looking for and by when?” “Can you clarify for me the next action you think I should take to get moving on this new directive?” “When you say that you’d like to see____, can you please clarify for me exactly what that would look like in your eyes?”
  3. Share natural consequences. Don’t complain about being overworked; most people feel overworked. Instead, make the invisible consequences visible. These could be consequences that will affect her, the team, quality, time to delivery, cost, etc. And they could be consequences you’re already seeing, or consequences you anticipate and would like to avoid. The most important consequences are the ones that affect the things she cares about most. For example: “Last week we missed the deliverable for ______, and John left with no time to…” “I’m concerned the quality of what we are launching is worse. I’ve already seen twice as many mistakes as…” “I’m concerned that if we don’t focus, we’ll be half done with everything and not meet any deadlines.”
  4. Rewrite your roles and responsibilities together. If you can get to the point in the conversation where she see the issue with unclear roles and too much to do, don’t end the conversation yet. Work together to re-define your roles and responsibilities. What types of new things need to fall on your plate, and which need to go elsewhere? You and your manager both need to remember that your performance goes up when you can focus. If you are just trying to juggle all day, it’s unlikely you’ll ever put your head down and churn out some real work.

All the best,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

1 thought

  1. Annie

    Thank you, Justin!!! Timely and helpful!

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