If you’ve ever said this before, it’s not your fault you’re skirting additional responsibilities. Our job descriptions and titles have programed us to be single-minded myopic beings that don’t allow us to see outside HR’s definition of our role. Like I said, it’s not your fault…it’s your company’s fault. It’s their fault because they gave you a well constructed, well thought out, and detailed job description of what your responsibilities are day-to-day. And how dare they do that to you.
Little did you know, this is the source of a global epidemic of disengagement.
Formal job descriptions are a hindrance to efficiency – they’re a disease. They stem fluidity and spurn creativity in professional roles, and it’s taking a massive toll on how we do business. It’s the business equivalent of the Nuremburg Defense – “I was only following orders” – and it’s dangerous. It allows us to fall into a vicious cyclical pattern in which we take no risks, view thinking outside the box as radical, and do the very minimum to achieve goals.
I was involved in a conversation the other week in which the topic of discussion was dangerous workplace behaviors and patterns, and although the phrase, “That’s not in my job description,” was not uttered, it was at the heart of the discussion, even if it was veiled at the time. This discussion had me equate the disengagement epidemic with a particular scene from Office Space, the philosophical masterpiece of reflection on a bad work environment, where Peter Gibbons has his meeting with “the Bob’s” (the consultants). In Peter’s meeting he tells “the Bob’s” that he has no motivation, and tells them, “That’ll only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.” It was prevalent in 1999 when the film was released, and it’s still prevalent today. Disengagement is engrained into our very culture.
This is the product of the attitude of “that’s not in my job description.” With this mindset we scrape by only completing the requirements of our job description to the point where we believe we’re doing well enough not to get fired.
Our issue is one of engagement. After only a few weeks on the job, there’s nothing inherently fulfilling about a job with a clearly defined job description. The employee falls into a circadian rhythm of “do my job, don’t get fired.” This is fine – if you’re okay with mediocre results. But if you’re not, you should recognize disengagement as the catalyst of meager efficiency.
I might be stepping on the toes of some people who need to be told what to do; but realistically, we should dispense with the 19th Century Industrial Revolution conception of formal job descriptions. At this point in time they are analogous to the steam engine – antiquated. They continue to anchor us within the 19th Century, and restrict us from having a modern business. It’s not that dissimilar to the idiom “sink or swim.”
“I’m on break.”
I was recently told a story from a family member about an experience they had shopping in Wal-Mart. Walking through the store they attempted to stop an employee and asked them where they might find a particular item. Without even breaking their stride the employee loudly explained, “I’m on break. Ask someone else.” Fair to say you’d be annoyed to receive such a blunt response? Yeah, we’d all be a little POed by that response. But even this is part of the global epidemic of disengagement. This should not be a negative reflection of the Wal-Mart employee, rather a poor reflection of Wal-Mart and their use of rigid employee roles and regulations.
Wal-Mart, in terms of customer support, experience, and image, has rapidly gone down hill since Sam Walton stepped away from the company in 1988. The only support you need for this claim is to view the negative media attention the organization has gotten over the past decade or more. I want to be clear, this is not an attack on Wal-Mart. They’re one of thousands of companies that have fallen victim to this behavior. I actually applaud their recent efforts to fix the issue of disengagement, even if they aren’t doing enough just yet. But, it still must be said, the rigidity of formal job descriptions (i.e. Not being able to help a customer while off the clock) is severely damaging the levels of engagement of employees in organizations.
Over the years I have worked in numerous retail positions (like many teenagers and young adults before me), so I am able to confirm that this behavior is the norm; it is not an isolated event experienced by my family member. I spent some time working in the electronics department of a Sears a number of years ago, and I was instructed to do the same as the Wal-Mart employee. I was unable to assist any customers while I was off the clock. For us rational human beings this ideology gets under our skin, but, ironically, what we find unacceptable at the places we shop is perfectly acceptable in the places we work. We continue to fall prey to the restrictions of our job description.
In office settings people continue to only work within the parameters of their job description. Perhaps it’s as Office Space suggests, it’s out of fear of losing one’s job. I think this is part of the equation, but not the chief variable. That, if you ask me, would be engagement. Most of us in the know of cultural business trends have likely heard the statistic that 70% of the workforce is disengaged, and I believe our culprit here is the job description HR handed you on your first day on the job. With this you’re told to subdue your creativity and cram it away in your filing cabinet, only to work within the confines of what your job description tells you to. And you better subjugate that outside of the box thinking until you’re off the clock.
So, how does one stop this epidemic? If it were a real medical emergency there’d be work done on a cure – a vaccine. There must be a way to prevent the spread of the great epidemic. And a vaccine, so to speak, is exactly what we need to end this epidemic.
The word vaccine comes from the Latin, vacca, for cow. This is because of the use of the cowpox virus in combatting smallpox in the late 18th Century. The full etymological description of the word vaccine translates directly to vaccinus, literally meaning: of, or defined by the cow. What I suggest has nothing to do with vaccinus, or cows. In fact, what I believe we need is a contemporary perception of the vaccine, something of, or defined by: the worker.
We don’t need a vaccinus (pertaining to the cow); we need an opinus* (pertaining to the work) as a solution, or cure, to our epidemic of disengagement. But, how do we create our opinus? We restructure our conception of the organization and the carrier of this disease – the job description.
In Fredric Laloux’s innovative work in Reinventing Organizations, he discusses the exponentially evolutionary stages of an organization, and the stage at which we are on the precipice of operating in within our 21st Century environment. Laloux calls these “Teal Organizations.” One aspect of these revolutionary organizations is the deconstruction of the formal job description.
Laloux believes that, “Titles and job descriptions come with an implicit expectation: people must adapt to the box (emphasis mine) they have been recruited or promoted into. Teal Organizations reverse the premise: people are not made to fit pre-defined jobs; their jobs emerge from a multitude of role and responsibilities they pick up based on their interests, talents, and the needs of the organization.”
Our opinus is the removal of the cubical (perhaps literal and figurative) mindset when we approach the method of defining our roles within an organization. In this lies the potential for a tremendous benefit. Think about the increase in levels of engagement if people were able to evolve in their roles, and not be confined by the metaphorical bars caging them in. Creativity shouldn’t be spurned; it should be nurtured and encouraged.
My ardent plea to the business world, and I’m speaking to everyone in it, is to remove this vernacular from not just the workplace, but from our lives. Think of the work we could get done and the relationships we could cultivate if we strike, “That’s not in my job description,” from daily use. The epidemic is very real, but thankfully we have the cure to our disengagement crisis. We have the opinus.
*Opinus is my created and poor attempt at the Latin language to combine opus (work) with the suffix inus (of: or pertaining to). Scholars of Latin, which I am not, will probably find my use of the language to be poor, but it serves my purpose within the discussion.
As eQ’s Writing Specialist, Eric Stewart works his creative magic to tell eQ’s story by putting our Team’s concepts, ideas, and methodologies into words!