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Volume 21, Issue 50;   December 15, 2021: Do My Job

Do My Job

by

A popular guideline in modern workplaces is "do your job." The idea is that if we all do our jobs, success is most likely. But some supervisors demand that subordinates do their own jobs, plus the jobs of their supervisors. It rarely works out well.
A gray wolf

A gray wolf. A particular gray wolf known as the Custer Wolf preyed on livestock in South Dakota over a period of nine years, until October 11, 1920, when he was shot by a hunter employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. [Merrit 1921] The Custer Wolf was adept at detecting traps, poison, and hunters before they could do him harm. One of his tactics was to employ two coyotes as "wing men." According to the USDA report, "He never permitted them [the two coyotes] to come near him, and they could feed from his kills only after he himself had finished. The coyotes6 traveled far out on his flanks, giving him warning of ambush or approaching danger and adding to the atmosphere of mystery that surrounded him."

This technique is analogous to what some supervisors do. They enlist subordinates to shoulder the parts of their responsibilities that are politically risky or otherwise unpleasant.

Photo by Gary Kramer courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

One school of thought among management theorists and practitioners holds that we can optimize organizational performance by focusing on only three factors: defining each job carefully, hiring people who have demonstrated success in previous similar positions, and finally providing people the resources we think they need to succeed. Then all we need do is have supervisors ensure that their subordinates do their jobs.

Or so the theory goes. In practice, things sometimes work out a bit differently.

For example, some supervisors require not that their subordinates do their own jobs; rather, they require that the subordinate perform some part of the supervisor's job as well. In effect, the message from supervisor to subordinate isn't, "Do your job." Instead, it's, "Do my job." When this happens, trouble is inevitable.

An intra-organizational scenario

Here's an example of a do-my-job scenario involving players who all work in the same organization.

Consider a supervisor — call him Kukla — who suspects that a subordinate — call her Fran — might be revealing still-confidential product development plans to favored members of the sales force. The revelations happen out of the supervisor's awareness, but not out of awareness of other subordinates. So Kukla approaches another subordinate — call him Ollie — and directs Ollie to report on Fran's transgressions. And Kukla tells Ollie that he (Kukla) has asked other subordinates to report on Fran also, so if Kukla hears about Fran's misbehavior from others, but not from Ollie, he (Kukla) will not be happy.

Ollie is now in a bind. He and Fran were friends. Ollie now avoids Fran, because he doesn't want to be present when she talks with sales people. If he is present, and if Fran reveals secrets, Ollie will need to report on his friend. Meanwhile, Fran detects Ollie's new coolness, and their friendship is in peril.

That's just the beginning. It gets really ugly when Ollie witnesses one of Fran's transgressions.

In the above Some supervisors require not only that
their subordinates do their own jobs;
rather, they require that the subordinate
perform some part of the supervisor's job
scenario, Kukla is requiring Ollie to do what is more properly Kukla's job. Supervisors who use this ploy must endure the consequences of fractured relationships among the people they supervise. But some of them do this anyway because they're uncomfortable with the difficult conversations that would otherwise be necessary.

A multi-organizational scenario

Avoiding difficult conversations is just one reason why supervisors require subordinates to shoulder some supervisory responsibilities. Offloading political risk is another. Consider this scenario:

As part of a reorganization, all product development teams have been matched with sales and marketing teams to ensure that the products developed match customer needs. Kukla, the technical Director for the Time Travel product line, has been directed to work closely with Fran from Marketing and Ollie from Sales. But neither Fran nor Ollie have been cooperative. They've told Kukla, "Just you do your job, and we'll do ours." So Kukla delegated his collaboration responsibility to his subordinate, Max, saying, "Make it work with Fran and Ollie."

Now Max, who is subordinate to Kukla, is even less likely to succeed than Kukla, because Fran and Ollie outrank Max. But Kukla was reluctant to press Fran or Ollie, so he offloaded this entire nasty mess to poor Max. Essentially, Kukla's message to Max was, "Do my job."

Here Kukla is delegating to Max work that is properly Kukla's. Kukla does that because of the political risk associated with calling out Fran or Ollie for being uncooperative when all three have been directed to collaborate. Max is even less likely to succeed, not only because he's outranked, but also because of the message the delegation sends to Fran and Ollie. They will assume, rightly, that Kukla is unlikely to stand up for Max if Max tries to report Fran or Ollie as non-cooperative.

Last words

If you notice one of your subordinates running the "do-my-job" play, or if you're on the receiving end yourself, be aware that these scenarios rarely turn out well. The Maxes of the world tend to view these plays as opportunities to perform. That is one possible outcome. Here's another: Kukla can claim that delegating the work to Max was Kukla's very own brilliant idea, and that Max would not have succeeded without Kukla's steadfast support. If Kukla does this, Max gets little credit for his work. Go to top Top  Next issue: Internal Audits Without Pain  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Merrit 1921]
Dixon Merrit. "World's Greatest Animal Dead," US Department of Agriculture Division of Publications, 1921. Available here. Retrieved 30 November 2021. Back

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