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The Psychology of Role Design — Retaining valuable staff series.

Thinking at the level of ‘role’ — Part 1 of 5.

In this article we will take a look at some of the essentials of role design psychology that activate staff engagement and retention.

We will start with an example of teams under the most extreme conditions.

The Mountaineers & Their Teams

I am often inspired by the stories of great explorers, as are many of us. They provide a metaphor for taking on all challenges in life — pulling on what’s needed and taking risks in the face of uncertainty. In the world of organisations, teams often face uncertain futures and require an all in culture to teamwork if they hope to be successful as the world changes.

When we hear of great explorers and their teams, there is always a clear narrative about their goal. Whether it be to find new lands, to conquer the ice or to climb K2 or Everest — the parties set out with a clear shared objective. It is life or death for such teams when the wrong people are tasked to the wrong role and so these teams are designed based on experience, cohesion and their own ambition to succeed in the same arena. These variables are paramount.

There are stories of disaster, in the absence of this approach. One such story is of Fritz Wiessner, who famously took a team up the ‘Savage Mountain’ (K2) in attempt to be the first to summit in 1939. The story tells of a somewhat haphazard group who were pulled together without much thought into their fitness, experience and ability. The leader, Fritz, held a strong view that he must lead every climb expedition and his leadership style caused fractures in the team. Some describe that the team split into two based on differences of opinion.

Despite almost reaching the summit himself, the expedition was a disaster. Four of the team died on the mountain and it was some 15 years before anyone went on to succeed. Much speculation was made about the experience, leadership, cohesion and preparedness of this expedition since. There is much to be learned in reflecting on extreme examples of bravery and disaster.

Admittedly an extreme example but in its extremities it draws dramatic attention to the some of the most crucial aspects of team and role design. I am referring here to the clarity of the endeavour a team is undertaking and the fit of the person into that team endeavour.

The use of a climbing metaphor may seem odd, bear with me. I am not a climber, but I have found the metaphor and the scale of impact to be a great visual aid for role design.

Blinkered role design

One of the most common errors in the design of staff roles is the task focused nature of job spec design. More often than not organisations approach role design through the lens of articulating job tasks and responsibilities and then mapping onto a pay band or salary. Titles reflect tasks, accountability and pay.

From the perspective of contractual and financial planning this approach is sensible. However, more often than not the role that emerges maps onto this same approach but not the larger endeavour of the team.

Job adverts indicate the key skills against this list.

Interviews seek evidence to prove that the job spec is met.

Job specs form the basis of a contract and lines are drawn around the job title, the tasks and the rewards. Clarity is perceived, but often not achieved in reality.

In the K2 example above, we could job spec a team member role as including:

  • ability to hike great distances

  • ability to climb rock faces and ice walls

  • ability to endure extreme weather

  • ability to endure low oxygen levels

  • etc

In fact, there are many companies that do just that when they offer spaces in commercial climbing trips. Such as to the top of Everest. Everest brings a death rate risk of 14%, yet many people continue to climb it without adequate experience or skill. This is understood to be mostly due to how climbers are selected, with the criteria being even less task focused than listed above:

  • ability to afford the commercial fee

  • ability to afford the climbing license

  • confidence to try

Arguably, in many organisations a similar approach is seen. The endeavour of the organisation is perhaps captured in a couple of questions such as “why do you want to work here”, and the selection process being focused on what hoops have been jumped through and what evidence exists that the discrete skills needed to climb the mountain have been demonstrated.

Designing roles that support successful organisational summiting

It is clear that people like to summit dangerous mountains.

It is clear that many lack the insight into how this is achieved in reality and even die on the basis of this lack of awareness.

It is clear that many people want to achieve career progression and success.

It is the organisation’s responsibility to enable this for these motivated people — but in the context of marrying their ambition to the wider team endeavour. I will provide here ideas for role design that can support successful people in successful roles in successful organisations.

Start with the endeavour

Rather than asking what the tasks of any new role are, start with asking how this role enables the wider endeavour of the organisation or team. Build the language of the mission into the role.

We rarely want an operations manager, we usually want a talented systems problem solver who can move mountains to enable our mission. We rarely want a receptionist, we want a warm person who is excited for people that are about to receive our product or service. We rarely want a sales person, we want a convert who passionately believes the customer is better off with the purchase they are about to offer them.

We want believers in our reason to exist and passionate explorers who will weather storms to get us there, as a team.

When I developed products for dementia clinics, my ears pricked in interviews when the candidates started to talk about their passion for helping older adults. Their own fears for their grandparents. Their stories of a relative who was dementing and their activated drive to better the world. The emotional motives became louder than their words.

People climb mountains because they really want to get to the top. Create roles that bring the team to the top and find the passionate climbers.

Communicate the role’s critical value

Engagement in role is dependent on the value of that role to the individual and to the wider organisation. Both have to be experienced to fully motivate and retain staff.

At all levels of role design include the wider team. Excite them about the new person and the value they will bring to everyone. Role design is at the level of a system. What do the team want, what do they need — how can you get them excited about this new valuable member. The team member who carries the oxygen supply is just as important as the team member who is carrying a tent, but their value may vary depending on the current part of the journey. Be sure to express value at all stages of the team journey.

This same language and appetite for value needs to be felt from the job advert, through interview and into the role. Think about what design elements you might need to include to make this felt. Regular 1 to 1s, opportunities for team presentations of work completed, celebrating wins, celebrating openness about failures and invitations to share ideas and opinions.

Start with the end in mind. Show immediate value for a role from day 1 and maintain this, no matter how busy the team gets. Critical people will activate when we need them, but if they lose sight of their own value they may also take their eye off the issues presenting.

Role clarity and Team Culture

Role clarity is a risky phrase as whilst it can be containing and helpful to staff (often critically so) it can also become a container that prevents innovation and bursts of capability and growth.

Whilst the key responsibilities of a role should be clear, the ways of achieving these often need some autonomy. Staff should be encouraged to innovate beyond the current ways of working and to draw on and give to the wider team, to enable organisational success.

It can be helpful to think of role clarity from two perspectives. The micro clarity needed around key deliverables and a macro clarity around team and endeavour role. What role does the team member have in helping the team to win and how can they support this beyond their own key deliverables. What culture have you created to bring the team together and to feel that their role includes building team cohesiveness, team innovation and team learning.

Include ‘being in the team’ as a key feature of every role. Not as a tokenistic phrase but as a culture (see Reinventing Organisations for a more in-depth read)

Design roles around value expression

Explore the values of candidates at interview and make values a regular conversation in your organisation.

People are mostly driven by what they value and despite what you might believe about status and pay, we are willing to give more and to stay longer with endeavours that match our values. Trust me, I lead a not-for-profit with 100s of professional unpaid volunteers — values beats cash.

Roles should be designed with this in mind. What values do you hope your team to have. What have you designed into the role that enables the staff member to express their shared values and to witness their values being expressed into organisational success.

It is not enough to state these to people. Back office staff who provide support to the organisation often miss witnessing their efforts in a prideful outcome. Share the value you are creating in the world through celebration, recognition and open creativity about how to do more of the same.

Ask about values and share your own.

One of the things I’ve heard about mountain explorers is that they form bonds that are intimate and life long, after their endeavours. They have experienced a united struggle against the elements, towards a win they all share an ambition to experience. Imagine creating this feeling in your organisation — it is possible.


An unusual take on role design perhaps — but one that is based on examples of teams independently trying to succeed in a world that often kills them for their efforts.

When we tap the human nature of such endeavours in our organisations and harvest it for the benefit of all staff — we can summit our own mountains.

For many teams, their current mountain is staff engagement, staff retention and innovation at pace. Hence this series.




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