Roles represent sets of behaviours that are expected of employees. To understand how organizational roles develop, it is particularly informative to see the process through the eyes of a new employee. Starting with the first day on the job, a new employee is presented with considerable information designed to communicate the organization’s role expectations. Some of this information is presented formally through a written job description and regular communications with one’s supervisor. Hackman (1992), however, states that workers also receive a variety of informal communications (termed discretionary stimuli) designed to shape their organizational roles. For example, a junior school faculty member who is too vocal during a departmental meeting may receive looks of disapproval from more senior colleagues. Such looks are subtle, but communicate much about what is expected of a junior colleague.
Ideally, the process of defining each employee’s role should proceed such that each employee is clear about his or her role. Unfortunately, this is often not the case and employees experience a lack of role clarity or, as it is commonly called, role ambiguity. According to Breaugh and Colihan (1994), employees are often unclear about how to do their jobs, when certain tasks should be performed and the criteria by which their performance will be judged. In some cases, it is simply difficult to provide an employee with a crystal-clear picture of his or her role. For example, when a job is relatively new, it is still “evolving” within the organization. Furthermore, in many jobs the individual employee has tremendous flexibility regarding how to get the job done. This is particularly true of highly complex jobs. In many other cases, however, role ambiguity is simply due to poor communication between either supervisors and subordinates or among members of work groups.
Another problem that can arise when role-related information is communicated to employees is role overload. That is, the role consists of too many responsibilities for an employee to handle in a reasonable amount of time. Role overload can occur for a number of reasons. In some occupations, role overload is the norm. For example, physicians in training experience tremendous role overload, largely as preparation for the demands of medical practice. In other cases, it is due to temporary circumstances. For example, if someone leaves an organization, the roles of other employees may need to be temporarily expanded to make up for the missing worker’s absence. In other instances, organizations may not anticipate the demands of the roles they create, or the nature of an employee’s role may change over time. Finally, it is also possible that an employee may voluntarily take on too many role responsibilities.
What are the consequences to workers in circumstances characterized by either role ambiguity, role overload or role clarity? Years of research on role ambiguity has shown that it is a noxious state which is associated with negative psychological, physical and behavioural outcomes (Jackson and Schuler 1985). That is, workers who perceive role ambiguity in their jobs tend to be dissatisfied with their work, anxious, tense, report high numbers of somatic complaints, tend to be absent from work and may leave their jobs. The most common correlates of role overload tend to be physical and emotional exhaustion. In addition, epidemiological research has shown that overloaded individuals (as measured by work hours) may be at greater risk for coronary heart disease. In considering the effects of both role ambiguity and role overload, it must be kept in mind that most studies are cross-sectional (measuring role stressors and outcomes at one point in time) and have examined self-reported outcomes. Thus, inferences about causality must be somewhat tentative.
Given the negative effects of role ambiguity and role overload, it is important for organizations to minimize, if not eliminate, these stressors. Since role ambiguity, in many cases, is due to poor communication, it is necessary to take steps to communicate role requirements more effectively. French and Bell (1990), in a book entitled Organization Development, describe interventions such as responsibility charting, role analysis and role negotiation. (For a recent example of the application of responsibility charting, see Schaubroeck et al. 1993). Each of these is designed to make employees’ role requirements explicit and well defined. In addition, these interventions allow employees input into the process of defining their roles.
When role requirements are made explicit, it may also be revealed that role responsibilities are not equitably distributed among employees. Thus, the previously mentioned interventions may also prevent role overload. In addition, organizations should keep up to date regarding individuals’ role responsibilities by reviewing job descriptions and carrying out job analyses (Levine 1983). It may also help to encourage employees to be realistic about the number of role responsibilities they can handle. In some cases, employees who are under pressure to take on too much may need to be more assertive when negotiating role responsibilities.
As a final comment, it must be remembered that role ambiguity and role overload are subjective states. Thus, efforts to reduce these stressors must consider individual differences. Some workers may in fact enjoy the challenge of these stressors. Others, however, may find them aversive. If this is the case, organizations have a moral, legal and financial interest in keeping these stressors at manageable levels.