Job drift

Whenever I take over a new team I try to find out exactly what the people in it want, how they want their job to work, what issues they have and then the fundamental issue of whether they really want to be doing something else. I nearly always find a few people who want to be doing a different job, though in the same team and are just waiting for the opportunity.

Of these, very few are people who want to be managers, which is what managers tend to assume that everyone else wants. Mostly it is someone who has tried a particular role, decided it is not for them and can see others doing a different role that they think they would be suited to.

Now, when I first came across this desire to do a different job, I have to admit it annoyed me. There were several reasons for this:

  • I interpreted it as meaning that I had someone who was not going to be fully productive because their mind was elsewhere
  • I didn’t want to be pressured to move someone into a role that they might not be the best person for, or even very good at
  • Even if I could overcome that worry, I could rarely see the opportunity they wanted arising and so the situation seemed intractable

I’ve worked with plenty of managers who, when in the same situation, make unrealistic commitments to their staff about how their role can drift towards the one they want. Unfortunately, whilst well intentioned, this is generally a complete disaster. The manager will normally have tried to introduce it in a gentle way, limiting the introduction to prevent the current work being undermined. But all too often the person affected thinks they’ve been given license to just stop doing what they currently do and start doing something else.

This is one of the endemic snafus in the public sector, people doing a job they don’t want to do ending up doing something else and the work they should be doing not getting done.

Not only can job drift end up being a problem, but making a vague promise about things changing in the future can cause just as much chaos:

  • For a start, as far as jobs are concerned, they are just too important for vague promises. People either hear ‘yes’ or ‘no’, they very rarely hear ‘maybe’.
  • Making people promises about jobs may well not be in a manager’s power to do. They may need finance approval or their boss to sign it off.
  • The manager may not get a chance to fulfil the promise in any reasonable timetable, or even at all, in which case the person concerned ends up feeling frustrated and possibly betrayed.
  • Finally, and most importantly, the process of advertising a job and interviewing candidates is normaly too important to skip.

So, in contrast to either letting a job drift or making vague promises I used to try to sell those people the role they were already doing in the hope of persuading them to sit it out, whilst doing what I could to prevent job drift. Not a very popular decision.

I’ve since discovered a much better way to resolve this, where everyone wins, but more on that later.

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