Jesse Sostrin is the author of “Beyond the Job Description: How Managers and Employees Can Navigate the True Demands of the Job.” He is also a consultant and an executive coach who focuses on leadership issues and diagnosing workplace problems. Sostrin spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. In your book, you talk about the hidden curriculum of work. What does that mean and why is it important?
A. The number one challenge that every employee faces is standing out and getting ahead of the change curve over the course of their working life. In order to do that, you have to go beyond your job description to add increasing value to the organization while you confront the unexpected challenges to getting great work done.
This is the hidden curriculum of work, and it includes a wide range of performance barriers — from everyday hiccups such as communication breakdowns and change fatigue, to more elusive barriers such as performance whitewashing, where all priorities are treated the same.
I expose the hidden curriculum of work so that people can answer the question that keeps them up at night: “How can I resolve the challenges that nobody talks about, and in ways that will make me a better professional and help me excel over the course of my career?”
Q. What role can employees play in shaping their own situation at work?
A. We are the greatest influence on our own working lives, but I don’t think a lot of federal employees would agree. They often point to the culture or the bureaucratic nature of their agency as obstacles, but the reality is that you can influence the quality of your working life through concrete actions.
Define the contributions you need to make — the vital purpose that you play and the skills you can use to anticipate and overcome challenges that prevent you from doing good work — and your elevated performance will be more relevant to the organization’s goals. These steps can help employees figure out how to work well, whether or not they can change the larger context.
Q. In your writing, you talk about the need for employees to be their own human resources department. Explain what you mean.
A. Successive budget cuts have reduced investments that employers make in their people. The first step to being your own career coach is to carefully align your role with the highest needs of the agency. I call this the “mutual agenda.” You can’t have a thriving agency without committed, performing employees, so every person has to understand where their contributions intersect with the team’s needs. Evolving your skills to match the changing needs of the agency helps you grow and stay relevant. This approach moves past this idea of tasks and activities, and closer to the value-added contributions and outcomes that quantify your great work.
Q. Employee morale in the federal government is at a record low. What are some of the concrete steps that federal leaders can take to increase employee satisfaction and commitment?
A. Every federal manager should try to understand the “job within the job” of their direct reports. They need to ask, “What are some of the challenges you face? Tell me about the priorities you’re focused on right now. Let’s compare our thinking. Let me redirect you on this one.”
To me, that’s the most engaging thing a manager can do, because it gets right to the heart of what impacts an employee’s day-to-day experience. It shows that managers are committed and interested, and it offers a substantive way of supporting employees’ performance.
Q. Are there other forms of give and take that you recommend?
A. Asking employees how you can support them requires them to give clear and specific feedback, too. It puts what matters on-record and the ownership and investment employees offer leads to better performance and greater engagement. Another piece of the equation is the ability to communicate expectations and the consequences of failure. I see people holding back way too much, and that just creates this loop of unmet expectations that can’t be solved until the communication patterns shift.
Q. How can leaders more effectively communicate with their employees not only about their individual jobs and responsibilities, but about the larger mission and goals of the organization?
A. If you look at communication as just this two-way exchange of information, you’ve missed the point. It’s how we actually create organizational culture. When I’m consulting with a senior leader and they say, "We need to be more innovative," I don’t ask about the competitive advantages of the organization.
I ask, “How do you talk to each other about opportunity and risk? How do you evaluate change and decision-making?” Because it’s in these patterns of interaction and communication where actual opportunities for innovation are opened or closed. So to me, leaders are the architects of the patterns of communication that shape organizational performance, and it’s a lot more dynamic than sending memos.