Thinking complexity & role complexity

Role Complexity & Role Fit

Theo Dawson
5 min readFeb 25, 2019


The complexity of the decision-making challenges faced by leaders increases as they move through successive layers in an organization. The figure above illustrates how four broad organizational layers typically relate to this increasing complexity. In an ideal world, the complexity of leaders’ thinking is a good match to the complexity faced in their roles. We call this fit-to-role.

In a well-configured team, the leader is the most complex thinker, with a complexity score that is a good fit-to-role. The other members of the team, aside from individuals being groomed for promotion, should perform 10–20 points below the the leader. This places them in a range in which they are able to understand their leader’s ideas and put them to work with just a bit of support or guidance. It is also the range in which they are most likely to find the challenge of the role “just right” for optimal engagement, motivation, and happiness.

Role complexity analysis

To determine the relation between the complexity demands of workplace roles, my colleagues and I conduct two types of Role Complexity Analysis.

First, we conduct a General Role Complexity Analysis, in which we evaluate the General Role Complexity of each organizational layer in terms of (a) internal layer descriptions, and (b) the complexity of work in an organization’s sector relative to the complexity of work in other sectors.

Second, we conduct a Precise Role Complexity Analysis for each individual role, taking into account the specific aspects of role complexity targeted in our Precise Role Complexity Survey. In this way, every role in an organization can be assigned a role complexity range.

Once the Precise Role Complexity of a role has been determined, we can calculate a Role Fit score by comparing scores received on our leadership decision making assessment (LDMA) with the complexity range of that role.

When we report fit scores, we always take into account the statistical error around complexity scores. We also caution employers that they should never base high stakes decisions on a single form of evaluation.

Overfit, & Underfit

Fit is good when an individual is in a role that provides just the right amount of challenge or stretch. Underfit is the diagnosis when the stretch is too great, and overfit is the diagnosis when a leader is likely to find a role too easy.

Role underfit

In the case of the LDMA, underfit means that the distance between the complexity of an individual’s responses and the complexity of the problems typically faced in a given role is large enough to interfere with the individual’s ability to manage the most complex challenges faced in that role.

When interpreting underfit it is important to keep in mind that there are two kinds of explanations for low scores:

  • First, the individual can’t explain their thinking well because much of their knowledge is implicit, meaning that their intuitive, unconscious mind (System 1) is doing most of the heavy lifting. This is not optimal, for a number of reasons. (During assessment debriefs, we attempt to determine whether or not this is the case, and suggest practices designed to make implicit knowledge more explicit.)
  • Second, the individual has not yet developed the reasoning complexity required for optimal decision-making in their role. Where this is the case, it is important to provide support for learning, reduce the complexity of assigned tasks, and/or find a better-fitting role.

Regardless of its source, underfit can lead to problems for employees, teams, and the organization as a whole. Some of the symptoms and consequences of underfit include the following:

  • An employee who exhibits underfit is likely to experience a high level of stress or overwhelm, emotional volatility or withdrawal, defensiveness, or frequent misunderstandings. They are also likely to perform below expectations.
  • Peers may experience frustration or anger, feel that the underfitting employee is not carrying their own weight, or conclude that the employee has a psychological or behavioral problem. They may eventually cut the employee out of social interactions or find ways to limit their participation in projects.
  • Direct reports may not see the individual as a capable leader. They may resent having to take instruction from someone they see as less capable than themselves, complain about or actively reject the leaders’ directives, or try going above the leader to resolve conflicts.
  • The underfitting employee’s supervisor is likely to have difficulty delegating tasks to this employee with confidence, sense that the employee does not understand explanations or directives as intended, and eventually, to conclude that the employee is incompetent or suffering from a psychological or behavioral problem.

When interpreting the severity of underfit, it is useful to consider how quickly an individual might be able to catch up with role demands. On average, a person who is learning optimally from everyday experience (with VCoL) can advance from 3 to 5 points per year. If the individual already has the requisite knowledge but it has not yet been made explicit, development can initially advance more quickly — up to 10 points in the first year of VCoL practice — but will then return to a more typical rate.

Role overfit

Some people who exhibit role overfit continue to find stretch in cross-collaborative or novel challenges, especially in particularly volatile environments. However, this rarely eliminates all of the consequences of overfit.

Some of the symptoms and consequences of overfit include the following:

  • An employee who exhibits overfit may not feel challenged enough to remain fully engaged and motivated, and is likely to frequently feel misunderstood or undervalued by peers.
  • Peers may find the individual difficult to understand, arrogant, or too focused on issues beyond the scope of their role.
  • Direct reports may find the standards of a leader who exhibits overfit impossible to meet, have difficulty understanding the leader’s arguments or explanations, and eventually become over-dependent, demotivated, or hostile.
  • The supervisor may view the employee as uppity, be irritated by the employee’s complicated input or advice, or find the employee threatening, all of which can eventually lead to seeing the employee as having a psychological or behavioral problem or labeling the employee as toxic.

Overfit, left unaddressed, often leads to a common form of Superstar Syndrome (our name for the constellation of symptoms described above), which is often associated with team dysfunction and the eventual loss of valuable employees. If teams within your organization are experiencing symptoms like those described above, it is important to determine whether or not role overfit is a potential cause.

In both cases — underfit and overfit — there are dangers for the individual, the team, and the organization. For example, a perfectly good employee can be driven out of the company or labeled as unemployable, or their presence in a team can stir up dynamics that result in severe team dysfunction. We have even observed one example in which a single case of overfit led to the loss of 50% of a highly successful company’s most qualified employees over a single 6-month period. Clearly, it is important to consider Role Fit whenever an individual employee is having difficulty in a given role.



Theo Dawson

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.