Changing the nature of jobs: a solution to entitlement?

John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

In the last column we enumerated the multiple benefits of having a good job. It’s pretty clear that jobs are evolving rapidly. My father spent 30+ years working in a lead smelter doing much the same tasks.  Now days, if you don’t like your job, wait five minutes, it will change.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the two largest occupations in America were farmer and industial worker. Today, about 2 percent of workers are farmers and less than 15 percent are industrial workers. Depending on how you cut the pie, the most frequent job is knowledge worker. Parts of both of the two previous occupations could be classified as knowledge workers. This is a huge shift in the nature of work from muscle to mental.

Peter Drucker defined and predicted the knowledge worker in a 1988 article.  Such workers tend to have three characteristics: They work with computers, they work in groups and teams and they are lightly managed. Understanding the nature these new jobs is a key to understanding and improving how work is performed.

A couple centuries ago political philosophers formulated the idea of the social contract. This laid one of the foundations for democracy. The job is a social contract many people seem not to understand. It is a deal between an employer and an employee.  An optimal contract is one where both parties benefit. Under ideal conditions here is my take on the contributions that the two parties usually provide for knowledge workers.

Employer                                                         Employee


• Compensation                                              • Time

• Working environment                                   • Skills, knowledge, experience

• Tools & training                                            • Best effort, life-long learner

• Fair management                              • Engagement, involvement

The most striking characteristic of this contract is its variety and dynamism. During recent decades the relationship has become more complex and generally of more mutual benefit. Knowledge based jobs tend to need and therefore produce better workplaces.

Another view of the nature of a job is as a social role. A social role is a set of integrated knowledge and skills that are appropriate to certain social situations. Social roles are defined by society, organizations or regulation and law. Examples of each are parent, friend; employee, student; physician and police officer. A fully functional person is one who has a robust repertory of social roles and knows when to use them appropriately.

When people in organizations understand their co-workers’ social roles, i.e. jobs, they work well together. There is compelling evidence that most internal conflict in organizations results from misunderstandings regarding jobs.

We build cultures with families and organizations with jobs. Clearly defining jobs can improve organizational effectiveness. A recent trend is to define jobs, not as sets of tasks, but rather as sets of responsibilities. Tasks have more of the nature of rules whereas responsibilities are principle driven.

Most job descriptions can be reduced to three to five responsibilities. This approach invites employees to exercise their experience and common sense to perform the job as it changes. Tasks often encourage employees to do only what is defined and nothing more.Teaching people that jobs are responsibility-based social roles is an antidote to the entitlement disease that seems to be sweeping some organizations.

“I don’t do that, it’s not in my job description.” This is a phrase that makes most managers shudder. It succinctly illustrates the ongoing balance, or as some may say imbalance, between “rights” and “responsibilities.” We are living in an age of increasing rights.

There is continuum here, rules vs. principles, of some importance to understand.  The previous social contract does not explicitly identify which are rights and which are responsibilities, which are rules and which are principles.

Rights are fundamental and tend to be settled by litigation, whereas responsibilities are managed by cooperation. Effective leadership and management are based on the thoughtful use of communication and cooperation.

Organizations that are heavy on rights, think work rules, tend to have lower productivity, mostly resulting from inflexibility. Work environments where management is top down, heavy handed, and authoritarian tend to create the need to define rights to protect workers from such management practices.

Entrepreneurial organizations tend to be job creators. One reason is their focus on responsibility and this encourages flexibility. As organizations become larger they tend to rely on rules thereby limit the ability of people to exercise their knowledge and common sense. Food for thought.