Career Development

Managing job and career ambiguity

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A poorly defined job role or lack of clear path for evolution can create uncertainty and significantly decrease motivation and engagement. As a manager, you are in the hot seat to ensure your employees don’t have job ambiguity. In addition, there’s a lot you can do to help your employees deal with career ambiguity.  Let’s take a look.

Job ambiguity

With digital transformation and an ongoing search for increasing productivity and effectiveness, job roles are changing at a furious pace. Often, roles change with no formal documentation. New tasks are introduced, new priorities are added but seldom is anything explicitly taken away or deprioritized.  The result can be chaos and confusion for employees who feel like it’s impossible to get it all done and can’t see their way clear to fixing it. Uncertainty is one of the primary threat triggers of stress, and this kind of situation can create frustration which can grow into anger and hopelessness.

But job uncertainty isn’t just a result of changing work conditions. This type of ambiguity can happen not only because of changes in the workplace, but also when an employee moves from one job to another or when there is no formal job description defined for a role.  As a manger, you are directly responsible for dealing with job ambiguity. Here’s what you can do to avoid and address it with your team.

The most important thing you can do is to ensure that there are clearly defined and documented roles and responsibilities. What is the work that needs to get done? What are the primary outcomes that the team member is responsible for? Every team member should have a clearly documented job description which outlines their responsibilities.

But in addition to what needs to get done, how things get done is just as important. What are the key steps in the process? Who does the employee need to work with at each step in the process?  This usually isn’t part of the job description, but important processes should also be documented, or at least discussed with the team.

When changes to priorities and process occur, work with your team to put the changes in context for each role on the team. If the changes impact the entire team, you should discuss it as a team as well as working with each individual. Some key questions to work through are:

·         How will the change impact each role?

·         If new priorities are being added, where do they fit with the priorities already established?

·         What can be deprioritized?

 For people who are new to a role, it’s critical to take the time to ensure they understand the role and what is expected of them.  Sit down with them when they are getting started and walk through it. If they have peers who do a similar role, assigning a “buddy” can be helpful. Provide opportunities on a regular basis in the first few months for the team member to ask questions and get clarification as they become familiar with the role.

Career ambiguity

Career ambiguity happens when there is no clear path for growth. Some (usually large) organizations have career paths defined with very specific steps and even learning to follow. But most people don’t have that luxury, and even when these paths exist, many people will simply focus on their job without prompting. As a manager, there are many things you can do to allay career ambiguity for your team members.

Start by having regular conversations with each of your team members about their career goals. This is an area where employees often need coaching. You can help your team member think about what they want next in their career by asking pointed questions about what kind of tasks, responsibilities and accomplishments they would like to evolve towards. You can help them to think through the steps in creating a career vision if they are up to the task.

Once you have an idea of how your employee wants to evolve, you can work with them to create some career goals and an action plan to get there. Help them think about what skills they need to get there and what types of activities they can do to acquire them. You may be able to help with stretch assignments or with other project-based opportunities. Share with them the importance of a learning plan, mentors and sponsors in achieving their career goals. You may be able to help identify learning opportunities and introduce them to potential mentors or sponsors.

Not all employees are interested in creating a career vision and plan. That’s ok. For these employees, you’ll want to find other ways to keep them motivated and engaged.

All in all, first-line managers are the best positioned to help employees avoid job and career ambiguity. Make sure you take time out of the fire drills and business priorities to focus on this important topic on a regular basis.

Out of sight, out of mind: managing visibility at work

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Working hard and providing value should keep your career from stagnating, right? Unfortunately, sometimes it’s just not enough. Recognition for good work starts with visibility. So, what can you do to make sure your hard work is seen by others?

Inform your manager about major milestones and accomplishments

Your manager can provide opportunities for broader visibility and recognition – but for that they need to be aware of the projects you own and are participating in. When you reach major milestones for projects where you have made a significant contribution, let your manager know. When you are part of a team, share the overall team accomplishment and highlight your personal contribution.

Use internal/external social media

If your organization has an internal communications platform, use it to share your accomplishments. Shout out your thanks to others for their contributions – it will encourage people to do the same for you.  Participate in external communities in your job domain or industry. Share learnings with a blog in internal and external communities – not only what went well but things that went wrong, and how to avoid them.

Share best practices

Most organizations have somewhere to share best practices. When you finish a successful project, consider writing up a best practice. Volunteer to represent the team to present a best practice on an open call. Use external communities to do the same, being careful to modify content if needed to protect confidential information.

Share kudos with your manager

When someone thanks you and gives you kudos for work well done, be sure to pass it on to your manager.  If they give you verbal recognition, ask if they would mind putting it in writing. Most people are happy to send a note directly to a manager to inform them of work well done by their employee – but don’t necessarily think to do it without prompting.

Establish a relationship with your 2nd line manager

Your manager can be a great resource to create visibility for your successes. But sometimes, managers are more interested in taking credit themselves. Regardless, it’s good to get to know your manager’s manager. Often, second line manager’s will hold round tables and town halls to get to know their extended team. Be an active participant – take advantage of Q&A to ask a question. Follow your 2nd line manager in internal and external communications and comment on blogs. 

Ask to participate in a cross departmental task force

Large organizations love to launch task forces to resolve sticky questions. When change is in the air, talk to your manager about how you can participate to influence decisions. Representing your department in a taskforce can give you opportunities to meet new people and share your expertise outside your immediate hierarchy.

Offer to do cross departmental training

Are you an expert in something others could benefit from understanding better? Offer to do cross departmental training to share your expertise. For example, you could teach others how to read KPI’s for your department, or how to work effectively with your team. Sharing your knowledge freely, formally and informally, not only demonstrates your expertise but your good will.

Offer to sit in for your manager in their absence

Who sits in for your manager when they are away? Volunteering to sit in for your manager can be a big responsibility, but it can also be a direct way to have contact with your 2nd line manager and other managers in your organization. An alternative can be representing your boss in a regular meeting which presents a conflict.

Don’t be the invisible (wo)man at work. Share your accomplishments and your expertise and keep your career moving. 

First published on Forbes.com.

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