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The Silent Crisis - when good people play bad roles

Organizations face a silent crisis when good people play the wrong role. This crisis is different then Jim Collins’ admonition to get ‘the right people on the bus.’ That advice reminds organizations that hiring the best people and putting them in the best organizational role really matters. The advice is obvious and to some extend evergreen, as organizations need to constantly adapt and change roles to meet external and internal demands for change.

It is one thing to put the right people in the right roles. It is another to maintain that role in the face of changing challenges, organizational context and customer expectations. Too often we see our roles as fixed, tied to titles and reinforced with predefined responsibilities. This worked when change was internally driven, organizations stable and relationships based on formal and informal bonds.

This is changing as organizations grind flatter, grow global and go faster. The resulting role ambiguity, situational context and increased use of teaming means that roles are no longer fixed and you cannot rely on positional authority to get results. While this creates a dynamic, challenging and complex organization; it also leads good people in the right roles unwittingly to play the wrong part. That is part of the silent crisis as it only become apparent after the fact, failure or lost fortune that the team on paper was not the same team in practice.

When leaders act like administrators, managers seek to lead and administrators try to manage the result is less than ideal. The table below illustrates the goals, roles and results that occur when this happens.

The graphic illustrates the connections and consequences of clashes between formal roles and the roles you may be playing in your organization:
The gray diagonal boxes capture the goals associated with each of these roles: leaders – transformation, managers – effectiveness, and administrators – efficiency. These are generalizations, but they highlight the different objectives of each of these formal roles.
The blue boxes at the bottom describe the types of improvement that are possible when you assume a different role in a positive way. Administrators leading Practice Reform is an example of what is possible when they shift into a leadership role.
The yellow boxes describe the negative outcomes that arise when you play the wrong role. Leaders become blind when they concentrate on driving their organization toward compliance through behaving like an administrator. These are the situations that lead to signs of weak management.

The need to get the right people on the bus and get them in the right role is critical to sustained success. How those people perform in their roles is a different matter as not every great leader can manage, or administrators lead. Recognizing the potential mismatches (yellow) is as important as acknowledging the potential people have to step outside their role (blue). That is an issue few discuss, as most of us are too busy trying to get on the right bus.
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Have you ever been in the right role, but found yourself playing the wrong part? If so how did you know it was wrong?

Alternatively, what are the consequences on you when your boss is playing the wrong role? Who really pays when good people play bad roles?

Recent columns by Mark McDonald

Mark McDonald is a group vice president and head of research for Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-Author of the The Social Organization: how to use social media to tap the collective genius of your customers and employees. He also writes a blog on the Gartner Blog Network.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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