Role Breadth: Are Two Roles Better Than One?

man in a white shirt looking at his laptop while his hand is on his chin

Morgeson, F. P., Delaney-Klinger, K., & Hemingway, M. A. (2005). The importance of job autonomy, cognitive ability, and job-related skill for predicting role breadth and job performance. Journal of applied psychology, 90(2), 399.

What is role breadth?

When I was younger, I worked at a fast-food restaurant. I noticed that while most of my peer coworkers and I each held the job title of “restaurant team member”, we performed very different jobs and all had very different responsibilities. I mostly worked at the cash register and interacted with customers over the drive-thru intercom. Other employees were trusted with cooking, baking and preparing orders, and a couple of employees were trusted with being slotted into any sort of role. Often, this last group had been with the restaurant longer and had accumulated a variety of job-related skills during their tenure. These were the employees who were given priority for overtime shifts and were flagged for promotion into management positions at other store locations. In other words, the employees who performed the greatest variety of job tasks were also considered the “best” employees.

The term role breadth is used to describe how many different tasks or projects a person performs in their job.

Similar to my coworkers at the fast-food restaurant, it is often assumed that people with the same job will perform slightly different sets of tasks and different numbers of tasks. In other words, it is easy to notice that people with the same job within the same organization have differing amounts of role breadth. This is often apparent across job levels as responsibility increases. Organizations desire employees who are motivated to seek out more responsibilities and wish to broaden their roles and who are capable of doing so. Because of this, it is not a surprise that both practitioners and researchers are interested in finding out why some people are more likely to broaden their roles than others. More role breadth among employees certainly sounds like it is a positive thing for their organization, but what is a specific, tangible benefit to employees broadening their roles?

What leads to more role breadth and what is an associated benefit of it?

Organizational psychologists and researchers Morgeson, Delaney-Klinger, & Hemingway looked at the relationship between employee role breadth and several job and worker characteristics among a sample of over 800 administrative employees. One factor associated with someone broadening their role is having the freedom and discretion to choose how and when to complete various job tasks. Understandably, more job autonomy gives people more opportunities to expand their roles by attempting new tasks and exploring ways to perform familiar ones.

Additionally, having a high level of job-related skill will likely lead to role expansion because if someone performs well on the job tasks they are initially assigned, then their supervisors will be more likely to trust them in handling more job responsibilities.

On a similar note, those with high cognitive ability are more likely to broaden their roles on the job. The term “cognitive ability” gets thrown around frequently within the employee testing domain and it can sometimes be used vaguely and leave some confusion around what exactly it is. Educational psychologist Linda Gottfredson defined cognitive ability as a general mental capacity that among other things, involves the ability to reason, solve problems, and comprehend complex ideas. It reflects more of a broader and deeper capability for “making sense” of our surroundings rather than academic skill.” It makes sense that having a higher level of cognitive ability supports role expansion because being able to quickly “make sense” of one’s surroundings by effectively solving problems is conducive to performing most job tasks. Being able to handle most job tasks will lend to someone’s ability to quickly get a grasp of any task they are assigned and take on incorporating more things into his or her job sooner than an employee with lower levels of cognitive ability. Additionally, if a supervisor sees someone quickly get the hang of a job task, then they will likely expedite the role broadening process for that employee themselves. Essentially, employees with greater than average cognitive ability and job-related skill will be more likely to self-promote themselves into role expansion and receive promotion into role expansion from their supervisor.

What, then, is a specific benefit of role breadth? The sample of administrative employees provided evidence that those with more role breadth had better job performance. This finding suggests that employees can strive for better performance ratings and career advancement through role expansion by demonstrating their competency in tasks they are initially assigned so they can be trusted with handling more job tasks. Essentially, an employee who competently performs several job tasks will likely be seen as a more valuable employee than one who performs a fewer number of job tasks. 

What are some key takeaways and how can employees be given more opportunities to broaden their roles?

  • Give employees more discretion in how their work is performed
    • It is apparent that some jobs inherently give their incumbents more autonomy than others (Ex: web designers have more autonomy than fast-food workers or administrative employees). So, it is worth keeping in mind that simply giving workers more job autonomy may not be feasible or even desirable in a lot of cases. For example, if fast-food workers deviate from how a particular meal is made, whether that be the process of making it or its recipe, then it will be more likely that customers will be dissatisfied. That is, meal preparation might take too long if a fast-food worker deviates from the standardized process or a customer might be unpleasantly surprised if they receive a meal that differs from their expectation of what is standard. 
  • Employee development and stretch goals
    • Self-efficacy is often a component of increased role breadth. In other words, the more confidence someone has in their abilities, the more likely they will be to perform a job task well and take on additional tasks. Creating stretch goals and aligning employee develop is key for improving ability to take on more. 
  • Employee training and coaching
    • Low self-efficacy in a particular area could align with specific training needs. In other words, if employees lack confidence in their ability to perform a specific task, then they may need more or better training to do so. 
  • Employers can measure cognitive ability when hiring
    • As found in this study and others using a cognitive ability measurement tool for employee hiring is one of the best in terms of predicting employee performance. Especially at higher levels as inferred by the strong relationship between role breadth and cognitive ability. 
  • Self-generated feedback to build self-efficacy (rather than unsolicited advice/feedback)
    • Another route to take in boosting employee self-efficacy is encouraging the use of self-generated feedback. Self-generated feedback could be collected from employees by having them complete some sort of goal accomplishment report prompting them to describe how the work they completed differs from their assigned work. Essentially, having workers identify the gaps between the work they were assigned and work they completed will allow them to evaluate how well they have met work assignments. Researchers John Ivancevich and Timothy McMahon found that self-generated feedback was more effective at improving performance over time than feedback provided by a supervisor among a group of engineers. 

Authors: Michael Trease, Thomas Ayres, & Brandon Jordan

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