How Job Descriptions Can Promote Engagement

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Managers often struggle with how to effectively empower team members.  How do we balance our responsibility of oversight with the autonomy that leads to engagement?

The first step in answering that question may lie in the humble job description.

The business world has a love-hate relationship with job descriptions, as demonstrated by the praise and negative criticism they’ve received off and on since they first became commonplace in organizations across industries.

I make it a habit of regularly questioning what’s best practice in the field of HR, so I’ve asked myself the “should they stay, or should they go?” question of job descriptions from time to time over the years.

My conclusion is, like all things in life and HR, they aren’t perfect.  But the negative stigma surrounding job descriptions typically stems from a failure in the job description process, form, or design.  All these shortcomings can be improved.

Of all the negatives I’ve read or heard in my career, in my experience, none outweigh the benefits of a well-written job description.  They can be an effective tool to increase an individual’s level of empowerment, thereby fostering their engagement.

As a result, job descriptions can prevent star employees from leaving and save you lots of time.  Read on to learn more.

What’s in a Job Description?

Let’s start with a quick explanation of job descriptions.

Job descriptions, aka position descriptions or JDs, are different from the language in a job advertisement.  That’s a job posting, which only contains the highlights of a job description that would be helpful in attracting top candidates.

A full job description includes information on: reporting relationship, duties, exemption status, position summary, responsibilities, experience, education, knowledge, skill, and competency requirements, as well as any physical requirements of the job.

To learn more about what a job description is and what they are used for in organizations, click here to read How can Job Descriptions Help Your Business Soar.

Job descriptions are not a panacea.  They will never replace activities that require a personal connection, such as training, coaching, supervising, or leading.  They’re simply one tool to help supervisors and managers do their jobs more effectively.

One complaint about job descriptions is that they’re just too restrictive.  Let’s look deeper into that and think about how to design job descriptions to foster empowerment.

Fences Create Freedom & Constraints Foster Creativity

It’s been argued that by listing what’s required of a person in a position, the implication is that anything not on the list isn’t the person’s job.  If you’ve ever heard someone say, “That’s not in my job description,” you know this is a legitimate concern.

But, we know that by giving clear objectives and boundaries, you enable a person to run free within those boundaries.  The common analogy for this is that the fences in a pasture are the boundaries that can’t be crossed, but a person is free to work anywhere within the open area inside those fences without repercussion.

Limits can feel like a bad thing, but having some constraints helps us to be more productive and creative.  Think about what would happen if someone gave you blank paper and a pencil and asked you to draw something.  Anything you want.  You’d likely stare at the blank sheet of paper with no idea where to begin.

That much freedom can be paralyzing.

But if someone told you to draw an animal, you’d be able to get right to work!  They wouldn’t have to tell you to draw a large black cat with green eyes sitting on a chair; that would be too limiting for you to be creative.  But broad instruction is helpful.

In the work setting, if you give a person no limits, they waste precious time and energy struggling to figure out what to do and what not to do.  When you give them a broad direction, the reason why it needs to be done, and some constraints, you’ve given them everything they need to be successful.

The Solution is Redesign

Job descriptions tend to be too restrictive—and problematic—when the description is not written effectively.  If it’s written like a step-by-step how-to manual, it’ll be too restricting to the person in the position.

From the latest motivation research, we know that employees need autonomy over their work to be fully engaged, motivated, and productive.  (A great book on this topic is Drive, by Dan Pink.)  A procedural-like job description gives too much direction over how work should be accomplished.

If you instead write the job description in a way that focuses on what should be accomplished at a broad level, why, and what situations to avoid, you give people a clear fenced-in area where they can create.

Let’s look at an example sentence from a job description:

  • Responsible for completing the monthly department status report spreadsheet and emailing it to leadership by the 5th of the month.

What this statement has going for it is that it provides clear direction of what needs to be done.  The drawback is that it’s so specific, there’s only one way to fulfill the responsibility.

What if instead, we say:

  • Responsible for completing the monthly department status report spreadsheet and emailing it to leadership by the 5th of the month.

This lists what needs to be done at a broad level, why it’s needed, and the constraints that it must contain – both successes and challenges.

Can you imagine what the person might do to make this happen?

He/she might create a PowerPoint presentation at a meeting.  Or they might create a podcast-style recording of the team’s progress.  The person might even survey the leadership team and discover they’d instead be happy with a quarterly report.

There’s a whole pasture rich with ideas of how to meet this responsibility!

Now, let’s circle back to the employee who uses the job description to escape additional responsibilities.

This can be solved by first hiring responsible, team-focused people who wouldn’t dream of saying this.  And, second, by clearly stating in the job description that doing what’s needed in the moment and assisting in other areas are responsibilities of the job.

Freshen up Those JDs

As stated above, it is not the only way a manager should set expectations.  Team and individual conversations are essential.  But, why risk failing to communicate the basics of the job when you can put them in writing as a point of reference?

Job descriptions are a key tool for empowering employees to use their creativity to do work better than you could have ever imagined.  This is a direct path to a more engaged and successful team.

Take a fresh look at your job descriptions with an eye on how they can support empowering people to take more ownership of their work.

The summer months are the perfect time to ensure your job descriptions are up-to-date if you are on an October 1 or January 1 fiscal calendar.  The updated documents can then be compared to market compensation data to ensure pay ranges are still competitive.  If you need support updating job descriptions, please give us a call.

Give it a try!

Start with your own job description as practice.  How can you rewrite your job description to broadly define responsibilities, why they’re important, and clearly state boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed?

You can leave your answer in a comment below.

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