Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
27 Jun 2013

Beware of the 'role creep'

27 Jun 2013 • by Changeboard Team

What is 'role creep'?

Doing more with less has become the mantra of businesses. Leaders have to cut down on costs and improve efficiencies in every area. We also expect our people to take on more.

What is concerning is that doing more with less has become a consistent requirement. There is a constant and unrelenting demand on leaders to make savings year on year. With people being one of the highest costs of many organisations, reducing headcount is an effective way to save whether this is a full downsizing programme, or just not replacing people when they leave.

The paradox though is that the workload of an organisation rarely reduces. Although business could be down, leaders recognise that they need to trade their way out of the recession. This puts another pressure on people as they are asked to be creative, innovative and explore further market opportunities.

So, at least there’s a three-way pressure on employees.

  • Firstly, people have to do their own jobs.
  • Secondly, they take on the workload of colleagues who leave or are made redundant.
  • Finally, they are expected to be creative and seek additional opportunities for their employer.

This is called ‘role creep’. And the word ‘creep’ is purposeful as it is an insidious growth in responsibilities. It is not easy for employees to absolutely state when the shift began. Equally, managers and leaders can often be reluctant to draw attention to what they’re asking their team to do, as they potentially feel guilty.

Irreparable damage

Role creep is also applicable to people being recruited into the organisation. The CIPD found that 75% of organisations are experiencing recruitment difficulties. In recent research that Festo conducted with manufacturing and engineering firms recruitment is a management concern for 76% of organisations.

Part of this is down to role creep and the high expectations of a recruiting organisation. We expect new recruits to have multiple capabilities and competencies, potentially bridging what might have been two separate roles. This sets the bar extremely high for potential employees.

The other area that impedes recruitment is the unwillingness to invest. ‘Hit the ground running’ is a phrase that’s often used. Knowledge of the latest technology, excellent qualifications and experience, all raise the bar even higher.

In previous years, role creep might have been seen as a good indication of promotion to come. If you step up to the plate and deliver above and beyond your job description, you’d be best placed to receive a promotion. This can no longer be taken as a given.

Research from the CIPD in 2011 shows that 29% of organisations had a pay freeze and the signs are not much better for 2012.

The other factor of role creep is the impact that it has on employee engagement. Employees can feel put upon, angry about the increased responsibility with the lack of recognition and often disengaged from their managers and leaders. So, the psychological contract and the trust between employer and employee breaks down.

As this happens productivity dips, retention becomes more difficult, motivation drops and engagement levels plummet. The savings that were hypothesised at the beginning are now in question. This is a typical downward spiral that can happen when leaders take advantage of their employees and if leaders don’t recognise this, the damage can be irreparable.

Back to basics - employee engagement

We know that to be engaged, employees need to:

  • Know (and understand) what is expected of them
  • Feel able and equipped to achieve their tasks
  • Feel valued and involved
  • Feel recognition and respect
  • Supported by appropriate reward (not just financial) 
  • Understand the direction and goals of the company – in relation to their own potential contribution to them 
  • Feel successful and that they will be developed.

Communication is key

We seem to have forgotten some of these basic tenets of best practice. Much of this is down to the fear and insecurity of leaders. Many leaders believe that they need to have all the answers. So, if they can’t categorically reassure employees about their future then it is easier for them to say nothing.

Yet, we all know that what people imagine is usually worse that the truth. During challenging periods, especially when the future continues to remain uncertain, we should respect our employees enough to be honest with them – even if you don’t have all the answers.

  • Increase communication levels, be open about the challenges ahead, what needs to be done, how they can contribute and the progress made.
  • Be frank that you might not be able to guarantee job security, but reassure them that you will inform them first when decisions are made. 
  • Be empathic to their needs and concerns and make time for them. 
  • Be upfront about giving them increased responsibilities and be prepared to invest in training and development to support them.
  • Find other ways to reward them, rather than just financial.
  • Recognise their contribution to the organisation.
  • Relieve pressure as soon as you are able.

If organisations are going to survive and prosper, even as they have to do more with less, having engaged employees who are willing to go the journey is essential.

Improving efficiency - top tips

Source: Adrian Griffith, director of productivity and business consultancy, Oval Business Solutions

1. Provide a clear plan, showing the bigger picture

Knowing where they fit in can help employees to make pragmatic and well-informed decisions about priorities. Provide a clear plan, showing the bigger picture. Gantt charts, mind maps and calendars can all help to give clarity and orientation in this context. Also make sure that they know what the company's vision is.

2. Give them the right tools for the job

Don't expect people to collaborate effectively, without providing them with the right tools. Email and spreadsheets for example can be used to manage a project well, but they can't compete with the new breed of social project management tools and don't provide the same level of transparency. Podio users for example, report an average of 20% work-time saved following the adoption of Podio through elimination of manual work, more effective collaboration, the convergence of work in one interface, removal of IT bottlenecks and avoidance of duplication.

3. Invest some time in them (and you)

It might feel counter-intuitive at first, with so much to do, but do spend time working with your employees to see how they do things. There could be any number of tasks that they've been doing in the same way for a long time, without stopping to ask "is this the best way to do this?". They don't know what the 'unknown unknowns' are unless you tell them. Share your wisdom with them. They will often be able to teach you plenty of new tricks too. Beyond that, don't overlook the importance of investing in structured training. It can be a false economy to leave people to flounder, using only a tiny percentage of the features available in their work tools.