In sports, when people "play out of position," the opposing team quickly calculates the gap and then takes advantage of it.

It's similar at work. If you are not playing the right role at the right time, you create gaps that open up risks.

When discussing positions in the workplace, it's important to understand the key elements of the different roles: leaders, managers and supervisors.

  • Leader: Focused on goals, resources, direction, logjams
  • Manager: Focused on priorities, planning, options, clarity
  • Supervisor: Focused on compliance, accuracy, day-to-day implementation

On many occasions, as someone explains a management challenge, I ask what role he or she was playing in the situation.  The answer is often, "I'm that person's boss."

Problem is, that's an organizational chart position–and my question was about the role.

Depending upon the other person's development, tenure and performance, overcontrolling or underdirecting can produce bad results, friction, and lower long-term credibility.

Many times, I find that this is not a single person's problem, but actually a cultural problem in companies that operate with overlapping lines of control.

In small entrepreneurial companies, it's common to find the player-coach-owner role as a leadership model. As the company develops, the model gets imitated, creating a company with murky role understanding.

When your leadership team is having management challenges, ask a few of these questions to see if  "playing out of position" might be part of the problem:

What role am I playing? What role is everyone else playing? It's dangerous to be directing day-to-day implementation like a supervisor when you should be just setting goals and direction so the management can develop the plan and execute it. It's just as dangerous when you give a "figure it out yourself" directive to an untrained or unprepared employee.

If I am playing out of position, whose position am I covering? It's possible that you are playing out of position because you are covering someone else's role–but whose role is it? This may indicate that you don't trust the person to do his job, or maybe you're hogging a task just because you've always done it–and not allowing the other person to develop. Remember that you may also be giving short shrift to your own role.

A fair question is "Can you play more than one role at a time?"

Most people in a company have moments when they need to fulfill each of the roles. During the development of a new person, you supervise. When it is time to lay out new programs, you plan and prioritize. And as you rally a group or work with a contractor, you lead.

But if you are not getting the results that you want, you or your colleagues may be playing out of position.