Working Nine to Five

Long before the “Great Resignation” or the “big quit” were ever concepts, Dolly Parton had a thing or two to say about life in the workplace. Like most things Dolly does, she was spot on.

Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’

Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’

In her hit song “Nine to Five,” Dolly laments the struggles many of us face on the job. The fight to make it through the day is all too real, and feelings of burnout are common in our lived experience. What is striking, however, is that many of the issues that Dolly sings about, and many of us can relate to, fall into two role stressor categories: role conflict and/or role ambiguity.

Want to move ahead but the boss won’t seem to let me

I swear sometimes that man is out to get me!

Based on role theory, the concepts of role conflict and role ambiguity were first measured in 1970 by social scientists Rizzo, House, and Lirtzman in the study “Role Conflict and Ambiguity in Complex Organizations.” Role theory identifies how we perceive ourselves within organizational contexts and the job that we have been assigned, including evaluation of performance and success.

Role conflict and role ambiguity have long been recognized as barriers to success and longevity within an organization or position. Role conflict takes place when one or more roles or identities an individual fills are at odds with one another. For example, performing the role of trusted advisor and disciplinarian could produce feelings of role conflict. Role ambiguity arises when an individual doesn’t have the proper resources or information to complete a task. For example, when expectations are uncertain, an individual might not have enough context to perform at a satisfactory level. Rizzo et al. (1970) outlined the ramifications associated with role ambiguity, noting that individuals who experience this in the workplace will feel increasingly dissatisfied with their work. Guimaraes (1997) and Chen, Rasdi, Ismail, and Asmuni (2017) reaffirmed that role ambiguity and role conflict are significant contributors to workplace dysfunction and inevitably have an impact on an individual’s intent to leave an organization. In my study of perceptions of role conflict and ambiguity amongst fraternity and sorority advising professionals in 2021, I found that role conflict, ambiguity, and job satisfaction were significantly correlated. As perceptions of role conflict and role ambiguity increased within this audience satisfaction decreased.

You’re in the same boat with a lotta your friends

Waitin’ for the day your ship’ll come in

An’ the tide’s gonna turn and it’s all gonna roll your way

If the numbers tell us anything, that boat is pretty full right now. Over the past year, the number of workers leaving their jobs has been at record highs. According to the Pew Research Center (2022), the twenty-year old record quit rate was shattered in November 2022. The Pew study identified low pay, lack of advancement opportunities, and feeling disrespected as the top reasons for departure. These symptoms of dissatisfaction arise from role stressors often associated with role conflict and ambiguity.

So, let’s break it down into three examples presented by Dolly:

“You would think that I would deserve a fat promotion” could be a form of role conflict or role ambiguity that is associated with low pay as compared to the level and complexity of the work being performed.

“They let you dream just to watch ’em shatter” is a form of role ambiguity that might be connected to a lack of clarity around how to advance within your position or organization. It could also be a lack of transparency surrounding pathways to success.

“They just use your mind, and they never give you credit” identifies a form of role conflict that is connected to feeling disrespected. In this example, there is a conflict between the worker and the supervisor for not being adequately recognized for hard work.

So, what would Dolly do? Dolly would create a plan and do it with flair. Here are a few ways that you can take matters into your own hands – the amount of flair you implement is up to you.

Define the areas that are in conflict or ambiguous within your role structure. Review your job descriptions and expectations regularly with your supervisor and address any structural role conflict—the conflict that is baked into your job. If expectations are unclear, discuss how you are being measured and how your metrics are tied to goals within your department. Expectations, metrics, and goals should all be tied to furthering the mission of your area, department, and institution.

Organic relationships with others who do similar jobs in your organization or at another that is comparable in nature will help you feel more grounded. Sharing ideas and best practices will increase your connectedness to the work resulting in a more positive outlook on the impact that you are making. Feeling isolated can lead to increased role stress.

Learn how to make meaning from the things that cannot be changed. For example, you may get an assignment that feels outside of your job scope or wheelhouse. Take time to consider how it may advance your skillset, add to your resume, or even help a colleague in need. There are parts of every job that we would rather set aside and there’s no way around it. Switching the way you think about these tasks can help you buffer the conflict.

Listen to what your body and mind are telling you. When dealing with stressors in the workplace your “fight or flight” response is in high gear. Powered by your sympathetic nervous system, this response is automatic and is your body’s way of protecting itself from harm. When that stress response becomes chronic, it can lead to mental and physical health problems. In their Staying Healthy blog, Harvard Health Publishing (2020) described chronic stress response as “much like a motor that is idling too high for too long. After a while, this has an effect on the body that contributes to the health problems…” If you have been in fight or flight mode for too long, talk to a doctor, counselor, or trusted confidant about what you are experiencing, remembering the areas of conflict and ambiguity in your job.

You have the power to do hard things and navigate difficult situations. Self-efficacy is produced as a result of having the tools necessary to complete the role. These tools include the proper organizational structure, the social capital necessary to complete the role, and the support provided through empowerment. We all know Dolly is all about empowerment.

When things get stressful think of Dolly. These steps aren’t just catchy – when applied they generate reduced role conflict and ambiguity and amplify commitment resulting in increased self-efficacy. To learn more about reducing role conflict and ambiguity within your organization and increasing longevity and satisfaction, please contact Dr. Tony E. Vukusich at

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