Role Conflict: A Guide for Managers

It’s crucial that your employees feel confident when working in their roles and completing their tasks. If they’re expected to take on conflicting responsibilities they’re uncomfortable with, they’ll feel less sure about their role, which could lead to lower work performance. Learn more about what role conflict is, examples to help you identify it in the workplace and tips to help you avoid and resolve it. 


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What is role conflict?

Role conflict takes place when employees must work in opposite, incompatible or multiple roles at once. It also happens if an employee is asked to complete contradictory tasks. This often leads to unexpected workplace challenges that the employee may feel too overwhelmed to handle. 

Since each employee reacts to role conflict differently, it’s important for managers to build strategies that help all team members identify role conflict so they can effectively resolve the conflict and prevent it from recurring. This allows the workplace environment to feel more comfortable, relaxed and positive, especially for employees who must take on several tasks or roles they feel unsure about.

Related: Identifying Different Conflict Management Styles


Examples of role conflict

Role conflict comes in various forms, and there are many different ways your employees can react and respond to it. It’s important to understand possible role conflicts in the workplace to help you identify and stop it. Common examples of role conflict in the workplace include:


Obligations to different job titles 

Some employees may be hired for a position with responsibilities that fall within two different job titles. This makes the employee feel overwhelmed, due to practically working in two separate roles. It causes confusion, not only for the employee working in the role, but for their team members who don’t understand the employee’s job title or responsibilities, which makes it harder for them to know which tasks to ask that employee for assistance or guidance on. This increases the difficulty of encouraging a collaborative environment for your team. 

For example, an employee may work as a digital marketing coordinator, where their tasks are primarily to plan and schedule marketing campaigns. If there isn’t a copywriter on staff, this employee may be expected to complete content writing duties as well, which may overwhelm them and their team members.


Working in higher- and lower-level roles at the same time

Some employees work on a team completing similar tasks as other members while also acting as the manager or supervisor of that team, essentially serving in a middle management position. This may cause confusion and distrust among these team members, as the manager must work alongside the group as a colleague and serve as a supervisor who reports any under-performing employees to upper-management. 

For example, a team of editors may have a lead editor who monitors and conducts reviews of their team members’ performances while also completing the same editing duties as them. 


Limited provided guidance for a role 

Some employees may be hired to work on a role with little to no guidance or training on how to complete it properly. Their manager may be unresponsive or rarely ever present to help them better understand their role or solve complex challenges. This often leads to a lack of confidence and self-esteem, since the employee is unsure if they’re completing tasks correctly and may not even know what their initial responsibilities are.

For example, an accountant is hired to work on a team of accountants who all have their own financial tasks to complete for the company. The employee’s manager gives them a brief overview of the role without distributing training materials or providing further explanations about the position. This causes the employee to feel unsure about which tasks they’re supposed to complete that aren’t already being finished by the other accounting team members. 


Tips for avoiding and resolving role conflict

When you know what role conflicts look like, implement policies and strategies to avoid and resolve it as it occurs in the workplace. Follow these tips to help you manage role conflict:


Provide proper training, guidance and assistance when needed

Some employees feel less confident in their role because they’re unsure how to properly complete their job. As their manager, make it clear that you’re open to providing your assistance and guidance when needed. Implement detailed training sessions into their onboarding materials and let them know you’re available to answer any questions about their role. 

If you’re out of the office, provide quick responses to emails or phone calls when they contact you with work-related questions. Knowing you’re there to clarify their duties and help them improve in their role increases their confidence levels, which motivates them to improve their performance and commit to your company longer.

Related: Training on Conflict Resolution: Upcoming Trends


Clearly define your employees’ roles

Open communication and transparency is important to maintain in the workplace. When you hire and onboard new employees, explain to both them and everyone on their team what the new hire’s role is and the responsibilities they’re expected to complete. This helps everyone remain aware of each employee’s duties so everyone feels more confident completing tasks and collaborating with each other.


Listen and respond to employee concerns by taking action

If employees are feeling confused or concerned about their team members’ roles or their own responsibilities, let them know you’re open to their comments and concerns. Have an open-door policy that shows your commitment to listening to employees. Address any concerns they may be feeling toward a role’s responsibilities. Once they’ve expressed their opinions, prove that you care about their needs by taking action. 

For example, if employees feel overwhelmed by the number or type of responsibilities they’re given, redistribute some to other employees or restructure their tasks to better suit the employee’s interests and skill level.

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