The tipping point: We need to let employees design their own jobs

Let’s start with these points, OK?

The hiring process isn’t the most amazing thing at most companies.
Job descriptions are often not fully indicative of what the person will actually do.
A lot of people exist at work and don’t really know what a person 1-2 cubicles/offices away even does.
Most managers can’t set their own priorities.

If you take those things together, basically you have a preponderance of work environments where this happens:

  • People get hired on poorly-contextualized, out-of-date job descriptions
  • Their managers are then in charge of determining their workload and work flow
  • Their managers don’t often know their own priorities, so how can they be expected to prioritize work for others?
  • You now have pockets of people all over the org collecting paychecks and essentially doing nothing because no one really bothers to know or ask what they do

If you think this sounds curmudgeonly, well, I apologize. But every since place I’ve ever worked, it’s been like this. There’s always somewhere between 6 and 30 people (or more in bigger orgs) who basically come in, surf Facebook and Amazon all day, and make their $60,000 to $100,000 a year, simply because no one knows what they are supposed to do and no one bothers to ask. Their manager has no time — gotta douse themselves in flammable gas and race to their 2:30 standup about Q3 margins — so the system perpetuates, often for years.

What if we blew the whole thing up and let employees design their own jobs?

The rationale for employees designing their own jobs

Researchers from Yale, Michigan, and Stanford have been working on this idea of ‘job crafting’ — essentially, letting employees design their own jobs — for years. Here’s the essential benefit and/or rationale:

Job crafting may also help facilitate creativity and innovation. It’s very difficult for a company to stay innovative if everyone’s job stays the same. We are creatures of habit, and organizations tend to be bureaucracies that impose order and consistency. The default will always be for people to get stuck in the day-to-day and have a lot of trouble taking a step back and seeing opportunities for reshaping their jobs.

The second sentence makes a lot of sense: “It’s very difficult for a company to stay innovative if everyone’s job stays the same.” Most execs probably wouldn’t believe that — “Gotta have my workhorses!” — but it’s essentially true. People are creatures of habit and many want to work that way, which is to say understanding their basic tasks and being perceived as good at those. People don’t drastically want to push their comfort zones.

That said, oftentimes you know your job and its true functions better than your manager, simply because you have it. Also, your manager has a wider scope of control, right? So he/she is looking at more and can’t be bothered with every nuance of what you specifically do.

The process for employees designing their own jobs

I honestly feel like employees should be allowed to reinvent their job description every single year, especially at companies that forego organic weekly feedback in favor of the ol’ once-a-year review. If you’re only talking with your boss at a deeper level once a year, you should be allowed to come in with a new job description and say “Hey, this is what I’m really doing. I think this would be a more accurate way to look at my goals and metrics.”

The problem with this situation is basic, though: most bosses just want to predict threats and swat them down, and anytime you come in with some good ideas or want to look more closely at your job, the first assumption is always “This person wants more money!” Most companies set up their finances to reward the top dogs and those the top dogs like, and to keep everyone else in some sort of $3-5K limbo place for the better part of a decade. So if you come correct with “Hey, I was proactive about my job!” — the typical response will be “OMG, WHAT IS THIS EMPLOYEE TRYING TO PROVE HERE?” Sad, but very often true.

Don’t employees design their own jobs every day?

Some do — the proactive ones, the curious ones, the ones with initiative. That’s maybe a little less than half, or a bit under 30 percent, of a given office. Most people rush around screeching about how busy they are and focus on the areas their manager is telling them are important. These areas might not actually be important to anyone above the manager — i.e. the true decision-makers of the company — but managers have been inventing importance around deliverables for years and mostly no one really notices, so long as the bottom-line is healthy.

Autonomy within employees designing their own jobs

The way I’ve always thought about and looked at work is basically this:

  • You have an organization with a set of goals, even if ‘the goal’ is really ‘make money.’
  • You have people with their own individual goals.
  • You want to align Bullet 1 and Bullet 2 somehow; some people call this “purpose.”
  • You also need to spend a bunch of time at/thinking about work, so you want…
  • People that aren’t total dicks.
  • People that will work hard and not throw you under a train.
  • Some opportunity for growth and advancement.
  • Some modicum of respect across all levels.

If you chop all that down to a more granular place, here’s what you need:

  • A purposeful, respectful place where people work hard and don’t backstab.

That seems like a good spot to spend 8-10 hours/day, right?

OK, so now … how would be possibly get to that?

Well, start by considering some of the biggest impediments to that:

Now think about this concept of employees designing their own jobs. It doesn’t necessarily eliminate those bullets above, no, but it does provide some degree of autonomy and respect back to the employee — and autonomy, especially, is quite important when it comes to jobs.

Could employee job design actually work?

At most places, probably not — it has some of the same value drawbacks to an organization that holacracy does. Namely:

  • The idea is so different than most people conceptualize work, it would be confusing
  • The vocabulary and concepts aren’t there
  • People would be confused about what it means for compensation
  • It flies in the face of rigidity and hierarchical organization, which companies prefer

I actually cringed in the article from Stanford Business School (linked above) where they said they ran experiments about this at Google. D’oh! Google already ‘gets’ these concepts. Running a study there is meh. Go find a dysfunctional 1,000-employee company based in Missouri or something. Try to run it there. See how ‘job crafting’ goes at that place. Google. That’s like asking Michael Phelps to swim against a bunch of guys with 1 arm and then you’re like “We proved this theory about Michael Phelps…”

Go back to what I said above, though: it’s a good idea for the companies that love, love, love the once-a-year review. If the manager is allowed to come with all their seven-month-old grievances and concerns that weren’t addressed at the actual time (Psychology 101!), then shouldn’t the employee come with some new concepts and ideas on the work they actually do every day?


My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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