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Job descriptions and the pygmalion effect

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Job descriptions and the pygmalion effect

· Performance Zone ·
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I’ve written previously about the pygmalion effect, whereby peoples behaviour can change based upon our perceptions of them.  So for instance, if a teacher believes their pupils to be smart and hard working, that is often what they turn out to be.

The possibilities for this in the workplace was highlighted by a famous study conducted by Brian McNatt.  Could managers literally believe their employees to be better and create a self fulfilling prophecy?  Over three thousand employees were studied across a range of companies, with the same results.  When managers believed employees had excellent potential, the employees performed accordingly.

McNatt concluded his study by suggesting managers “recognise the possible power and influence in a) having a genuine interest and belief in the potential of their employees… and b) engaging in actions that support others and communicate that belief… increasing others’ motivation and effort and helping them to achieve that potential”.

So it’s clear that managers can impart a strong influence over the behaviour of their employees courtesy of the way they perceive those same employees.  Now think about the way job descriptions tend to operate.

The chances are that your employees are given a job description when they start in their role, or when they complete their annual performance appraisal.  This job description will outline the kind of tasks you expect from that employee, and will probably feed into any pay and promotional actions surrounding that person.

Which is great, except it’s all rather limiting, isn’t it?

Why job descriptions are bad

Think about the process I outlined above. When so much of what you do is driven by the narrow confines of a job description, it places a massive restriction on the way you can contribute to your organization.

The issue is made worse by the fact that the vast majority of job descriptions are actually created by someone else. Indeed, they’re created by someone who often has very little knowledge of your unique skills and experiences. How can they possibly have a full idea of how you may be able to contribute to your company?

Job crafting

Lets think of a better way to do things.  Imagine if rather than having a job description bestowed upon you, you can instead take a collaborative approach to crafting your own job description.

Such an approach is known as job crafting, and it was popularized by Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton, academics from Yale and Michigan Universities respectively.  Their hope is that employees will eventually take a much bigger role in creating their own job descriptions.

It will see employees add various tasks and responsibilities to their job descriptions that match up closely with their particular interests and their personal values.  It requires each individual to look at their work environment and analyze what tasks are needed, and how they can contribute towards them.

In addition to outlining the tasks they believe they can contribute to, job crafting requires each employee to create a development plan for themselves that will allow them to complete these tasks effectively and efficiently.

This change therefore turns the job description into something more akin to a personal plan that is created collaboratively between employee and their boss.  Doesn’t that sound much better?  Not only are you giving employees greater control over their work, you’re also showing them that you think they are responsible enough to grow and evolve as individuals.

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