History Sets the Stage
While walking around Masada recently, thinking of the events that transpired there, it occurred to me there was a lesson regarding job descriptions in that significant place of history. Masada (Hebrew for fortress) is situated atop an isolated rock cliff at the western end of the Judean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea.
It is a place of gaunt and majestic beauty. On the east the rock falls in a sheer drop of nearly 1500 feet to the edge of the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on earth, home 1500 feet below sea level. In the west it stands over 300 feet above the surrounding terrain.
The natural approaches to the cliff top are very difficult; it’s a long and arduous walk up the paths now in place! According to Josephus Flavius, Herod the Great built the fortress of Masada between 37 and 31 BC. Herod had been made King of Judea by his Roman overlords and was hated by his Jewish subjects. Herod, the master builder, had palace residences in a number of locations for his own personal safety.
He furnished this fortress as a refuge for himself. It included a casemate wall rainwater, barracks, palace residence and an armory. Some 75 years after Herod’s death, at the beginning of the Revolt of the Jews against the Romans in 66 AD, a group of Jewish rebels overcame the Roman garrison of Masada and took it as their own.
After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the Jewish rebels who resided at Masada were joined by “zealots” and their families who had fled from Jerusalem. With Masada as their base, they raided and harassed the Romans for two years. Then, in 73 AD, the Roman governor Flavius Silva marched against Masada with the Tenth Legion. The Romans established camps at the base of Masada and laid siege to it.
Their camps sites, which surrounded it completely, are still very evident today. They then constructed a “road” made up of thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth at the base of the western (lowest) approach. In the spring of the year 74 AD, they moved a battering ram up the ramp and breached the wall of the fortress.
Josephus Flavius dramatically recounts the story told him by two surviving women. The defenders numbered almost one thousand men, women and children. Led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir, they decided to burn the fortress and end their own lives, rather than be taken alive.
The Zealots cast lots to choose 10 men to kill everyone else. They then chose among themselves the one man who would kill the last remaining survivors. That last Jew then killed himself, not realizing two women had successfully hidden and survived. It’s an astonishing story I learned from our Jewish guide, but as I walked independently around the fortress,
I also thought about the Roman soldiers, and that’s where the issue of successful job descriptions occurred to me.
I See Many Iterations of Job Descriptions
Over time I have surmised that the more detailed and comprehensive job descriptions are, the less effective they are. The more detailed they are, the more they tend to narrowly focus the job expected.
Then critically important tasks or unexpected tasks are greeted with, “that’s not part of my job description.” So, many companies have quite successfully adopted much shorter “40,000 feet view” job descriptions.
They leave out details that can be used as successful defense for anything asked beyond those included in the description. I find myself encouraging firms to be as strategic as possible in the job descriptions they publish, leaving out all of the “tactical” tasks that can lead to a difference of whether one should do a task requested and whether or not it falls under the exact definition of the job description. It’s the old problem of the theatre unions in New York, where only a certain employee can screw in a light bulb.
It seems ridiculous, but employers have been forced to accept these union negotiated terms. As a result they are in a very expensive box. They must hire many more people than tasks require.
Think of the Roman Legion. They were told they were marching across a huge desert to eliminate these Jewish “zealots” who were causing them all manner of trouble and were surely not subjecting themselves to Roman rule, so off they marched. But when they arrived, they discovered a fortress that they were unprepared and ill-equipped to attack.
So their leaders figured out a way to turn their highly skilled soldiers into rock carriers, building a ramp day after day, requiring literally hundreds of thousands of tons of rock and dirt to get into a position from which they could penetrate the fortress walls with battering rams.
Their “job description” surely didn’t include carrying rocks day after day, but it was the task required for the successful conclusion of their mission. So they did it, and they did it well. They didn’t object to it, likely because they had no leverage, but there was no job description that excluded the effort required.
When compensation plans are aligned correctly with the goals and objectives of the firm, the plans are enough to motivate and direct each employee’s activities. They need leadership, vision and encouragement, but lengthy detailed job descriptions often serve as vehicles employees can use to object to tasks that are out of the ordinary.
Why give them a defense for not complying? Wouldn’t it be far better if a salesman who had a critical shipment due out that day, was willing to help solve a problem that was threatening on-time shipment? The salesman’s willingness to provide assistance with a non-routine effort, may mean the difference between repeat sales with a happy customer and losing money.
The answer “not in my job description” doesn’t help the firm, its responsiveness, its customers, nor the salesman’s success. It hurts everyone. I encourage firms to be far more general, using the job description to provide a “path” for normal focus, allowing each employee to be “drafted” for the occasional “road building” project that demands their skills and experience even though it’s not a normal part of their daily routine.
Creating fewer artificial fences through a strategic approach to job descriptions will prove far more beneficial to the firm than a carefully crafted detailed (and self-limiting!) job description