Job role and definition is crucially important to the bottom line

Relevant Skills and Job Roles

How a job is designed — the role of the job, essentially — is extremely important to how a person performs, and we need to understand and discuss this more. First? A quick personal story.

I recently got laid off from a gig I started back in July 2014. In June of 2014, I had flown down from Minneapolis — where I was living at the time — to Fort Worth — where the job was based, and where I currently live. I had lunch with the lady who would be my boss and her boss. During that lunch, I asked them about day-to-day responsibilities of the role. Both couldn’t really answer the question. At that point, I probably should have realized it was a bad fit. Thing was, I needed a job and my wife and I wanted to leave Minneapolis. I ended up taking it, and here I am now, 16 months later, looking to commence a brand new search.

It’s a shame, but it happens more than we think. In fact, it’s a dirty little secret of most workplaces that no one really knows what many of their co-workers actually do. This happens for a couple of different reasons, best I can tell from my working years:

  • Assumption of Busy: Many managers feel busy themselves — pulled in many directions — so they assume their whole team is that busy. Then, rather than looking at how actually busy their team members are, they rush to hire.
  • Headcount: Because headcount is more of a gift in some organizations than a bonus would be, it creates a lot of analysis paralysis for hiring managers — and ultimately it’s all subjective anyway, so they end up making the wrong pick and taking too long to do so.
  • Applicant Tracking Systems and the Recruiting Process: It’s all based on “easy-to-implement!” technological solutions, which is essentially killing recruiting by removing any human element from it.
  • People Analytics: Any role that’s been held a couple of times has seen successes and failures from the people who held it. So theoretically, a manager has a set of data points such as “This job really needs this skill set, but this one over here is less relevant.” That’s the micro-level of People Analytics, or applying some data science to hiring. Seems logical, since you’re about to bring in a person who will spend 1/3 of their time at your offices, right? Thing is: we’re not there yet with People Analytics. We may never be.

I’m just one person with theories, though. Is there research on this?


The Idea Of Total Motivation

There’s a great article on Harvard Business Review about the ties between ‘culture’ — an amorphous, hard-to-define word — and bottom-line results. The latter is the stuff managers love, so for anyone to care about something — say ‘culture’ — you need to establish a tie there. The article is written by Lindsay McGregor, who wrote this book on ‘Total Motivation.’

What is Total Motivation, you ask? Let’s go to the article for a definition:

We found that a high-performing culture maximizes the play, purpose, and potential felt by its people, and minimizes the emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. This is known as creating total motivation (ToMo).

If you’re interested in concepts around employee engagement and organizational health, this shouldn’t be too surprising for you — play, purpose, and potential are important, and various pressures and inertia are bad. Got it.

Now here’s where it gets interesting around job or role definition. Let’s bring in a visual:

The importance of job/role definition

The Total Motivation score we discussed above can swing by 87 points — which is by far the largest swing — between a poorly-designed job/role and a well-designed job/role.

Look down at ‘leadership’ and ‘compensation.’ If compensation is poor vs. good, that’s only a 48-point swing in Total Motivation; that’s almost half the swing for a poorly-designed vs. a well-designed job or role.

But why do employee engagement and job role even matter?

The next question you might ask is: why does any of this matter? Who cares what a ‘Total Motivation’ score for our employees is, so long as we’re making money? Right?

Well, if you start with the idea that ‘brand’ is declining and ‘customer relationships’ are what now matter, then turn to this chart:

Total Motivation Score vs. Customer Satisfaction

Stronger Total Motivation = Higher Customer Satisfaction = More Repeat Customers = Money = The Goal.

We want more money. What can we do about job role?

If you follow that whole arc from A to B to C, here’s how it goes:

  • Rather than rushing to hire because you assume your team needs more help, instead think about roles.
  • Rather than updating an old job description that probably changed many times over as the business has changed, sit down and talk to people who would work with this person. Ask: What does this job or role need?
  • Rather than racing off to complete your daily tasks, really spend some time thinking about what you need in a specific role.
  • Only at that point should you approach finance about headcount and a potential salary.
  • Treat the hiring process as sacrosanct. Really believe in ‘talent strategy’ for a few weeks.
  • Bring the person in and onboard them well; really get them settled in the organization and its processes/culture.
  • Explain to them what other people do, and how those other people may work with him/her.

Soooooo many problems at work come from communication, and soooooo many problems with communication come from unclear roles or overlaid responsibilities. Some of these charts above — and yes, admittedly it’s one series of studies — showcase that.

So: if you want a successful team and happy customers, how about starting with some clarity on job role and job definition?



Ted Bauer


  1. A lot good here, but I disagree that recruiting lacks the human element. It has too damn much of the human element, and not enough objective reality. The human element wants to avoid accountability, and to avoid objective measures, especially those which may predict success, because more often than not reality refuses to conform to existing notions people have of how the world should be. People look for confirmation of what they already think reality is, they rarely look to reality itself, but try to rationalize why it’s different from what they think it should be.

    That’s completely human, and also a massive part of what’s fucked up in the hiring process. Why else have people demanded college degrees when there’s little to no evidence to show they matter for most jobs? Because… that’s what you do. No other reason. And when someone suggests changing it they get lambasted even though no one can really bring up a reason why they’re so important.

    • You make a good point here, especially about the “no other reason” part. That’s life in a nutshell, sadly.

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