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Jesse Sostrin

Beyond the Job Description


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Why your job description is a lie


What if I told you that your entire working life was based on a myth? Let me explain…Remember back to your first few days in a new job. Whether you were an experienced professional or new to the workforce, you quickly discovered that the “job description” that explained your role was quite different from the reality you faced. Nobody told you this, but the day you were hired you actually accepted two jobs.

The first was the position you interviewed for, including the title and all of the responsibilities outlined on paper. The second “job-within-the-job” included the unspoken work that required you to: manage constant change; effectively collaborate with difficult people; navigate confusing workplace politics; and get your best work done in an environment of shrinking resources and increasing demands. For both managers and employees, this is the double-reality of work.

The truth that our job descriptions lie is, in part, the reason work can be so frustrating. We are all working two jobs, and as we politely get down to the business of fulfilling the tasks and activities in our primary job descriptions, we incessantly bump up against the real challenges of our “job-within-the-job.” And yet, there is no common language to describe this hidden side of work, so we do not speak about it. And because we do not speak about it, we are not given support to address it. And this is the ferocious cycle that ensues from A to D and back again: (A) we are hired and paid to do a job, (B) but are only given a partial picture of what is needed to succeed at it, (C) so we are on our own to understand the missing part of the picture and to figure out our own path toward success, and (D) while all of this unfolds we will not be rewarded any differently if we succeed, but we could still face consequences if we fail to meet the job’s demands.

Does this mean we should shred all of the standard job descriptions we can find? No, but we need to seriously update our thinking about the difference between “tasks and activities” and “the hidden demands of work.” Understanding what is wrong with standard job descriptions requires an understanding of the hidden curriculum of work®.

In today’s competitive landscape, standing out, getting ahead of the change curve, and staying relevant at work comes from the ability to go beyond your job description and continuously improve your learning and performance as you confront the hidden demands of work. These two factors – the need for continuous learning and performance and the presence of performance barriers – form what I call the hidden curriculum of work®. A hidden curriculum exists anytime there are two simultaneous challenges where one is visible, clear, and understood and the other is concealed, ambiguous, and undefined.

For example, professional athletes master the fundamentals of their sport and excel at the highest level on the court or field of play. . . but they still have to learn how to deal with wealth, fame, and the many other challenges and distractions that come with professional sports.  And, when children enter school, they have to master the educational standards in their curriculum. . . but, reading, math, and science lessons do not prepare them for the peer pressure, social dynamics, and developmental challenges of youth that they inevitably face. In the same way, there is a hidden curriculum of work® that we all encounter.

The fundamental system on which most organisations structure their operations is based on what I call the Standard Model of Work (SMW). Within the SMW there is virtually no acknowledgment of the presence and impact of the hidden side of work. This wholesale failure to recognize the gap between the way we work and the true demands of getting great work done not only sustains the impact of challenges from the hidden curriculum of work®, but it erodes the credibility that leaders maintain as vital resources for problem solving.

Within the SMW there is a serious traffic jam in the pursuit of improvements to the way we get work done. Perhaps your existing tool chest of resources is already overflowing with unused and ineffective “solutions to the problems of work.”

When I consult with organisations and their leaders I often introduce the need for this paradigm shift by explaining the vicious cycle described above. Forgetting about the toll that this kind of environment takes on people for the moment, I ask them questions like:

  • What do you think the quality of work is likely to be when people are blind to their hidden challenges?
  • How much time and energy do you think people spend figuring out their own work when the tasks and activities in their job descriptions are not always relevant?
  • What is the total cost to your organization when your entire system of hiring, managing, and evaluating people does not reflect the full spectrum of capabilities and roles you actually need for your business to succeed?

The hidden curriculum of work® is different for us all; however everyone can start exposing the half-truth of their standard job description by exposing the “job-within-the-job.” As a first step, here are six core questions that begin at the superficial level

  1. What single statement best describes Your Role?
  2. What Tasks and Activities absorb most of your time?
  3. What are the Greatest Challenges that prevent your best work
  4. What single statement reveals Your Vital Purpose to the organisation?
  5. Which of Your Contributions have the greatest value to the Organisation?
  6. What are the Hidden Challenges of delivering this value?

By using a framework like this you can learn how to quickly and accurately drill down (below the first three questions) to the “job-within-the-job.” This is the first marked shift that occurs when you look past the SMW and operate according to the realities in the hidden side of work.

One Response

  1. This is a great article Jesse

    This is a great article Jesse. Could it be that once we have drilled down to the hidden workload, which is usually about managing volume of work, learning to respond to others' behaviours and the constant changes that we are faced with, we are left with our own self responsibility? Sure our workplaces need to supply us with the resources etc to do our job well, however from my experience, the quality of my work and my responses to change and others' behaviour has much (not all) to do with the quality that I come to work with. My own ability to self care, consider my responses and reflect on these hidden areas is crucial and this is an area that does not see as much discussion as is necessary. 

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Jesse Sostrin


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