Not in my job description…

In the Winter of 2016 I found myself at Fort Carson, Colorado participating in an Army exercise. A major snowstorm hit the area, dumping about 14 inches of snow on the installation. Now Ft Carson and Colorado Springs generally don’t do a whole lot about big snowfall like this as the roads will be clear in a couple of days. They simply close the post while they clear the big stuff and let the rest melt.

Being part of an exercise you can’t really afford to take the day off, so the troops either walked or braved the slick roads to get to work.  Jon, a friend and fellow Colonel, decided we needed to swing by the dining facility on the way in that morning as we likely wouldn’t get out again the rest of the day.

When we arrived at the DFAC (pronounced dee-fak, short for dining facility) we were met by a young private who was assigned the unenviable job of scanning ID Cards as people entered the DFAC. He looked bored. It turned out that the two of us Colonels were two of only a handful of folks who had bothered to get breakfast on that snowy morning. We scanned in and then ordered some food from the Army specialist behind the counter.

While we waited for him to prepare our food we went to gather condiments and such for our to-go order. There weren’t any.  The napkin bin was also empty, as was the cup dispenser for coffee. I can understand when a place is really busy why they might get behind on things like this, but since there was virtually nobody here we couldn’t figure out why nobody had bothered to restock and tidy up.

Jon approached the private who had scanned our cards. “Hey private, do you realize that you are out of napkins, cups and condiments? And that this place is a mess?” The private snapped to attention, obviously distraught at being addressed directly by the colonel. “ummm…” he started. “Yes, sir. I can see that. But I don’t work here.”

Jon looked at me, raising his eyebrows with a “ok, I’ll bite” sort of look. “Well, private, where do you work?” “I am here on detail. I am only supposed to scan ID Cards. That’s my job.” “But you see that this needs fixing and that the staff cooking food is short-handed, don’t you?” “Yes, sir. But my job is to scan the ID cards. Nobody told me to clean up or restock those things. I didn’t think I was allowed to.”

One can hardly blame the private. As a recent graduate of Basic Training he was told over and over by well-intentioned Drill Sergeants, “don’t think, just do what I tell you to do.” This mantra, oft repeated at Basic Training venues across the country, is counter to the idea of instilling initiative in our troops, but that is a rant for another day. In this story I am more interested in the culture we have created that limits people to working only “in their lane.”

This, by the way, is a phenomenon not unique to Army DFACs. You see it every day in all walks of life. The kid behind the counter at the movie theater concession stand who lazily sweeps the floor while a harried cashier takes orders, gets popcorn and drinks, and makes change by herself as the long line gets longer. Our sweeper could easily run the drinks or popcorn, returning to the broom when the crowd subsides but doesn’t think he’s allowed to. The janitor that walks past an overflowing garbage can to empty the half-full one he is assigned to empty. The co-worker that allows a phone to ring and ring, eventually going to an already full voicemail instead of answering it.

Some of this can be chalked up to mere laziness. More often, though, it is cultural norms that keep people focused exclusively on the things that are in their job description and nothing more. People generally don’t feel like it is appropriate to step outside the strict confines of their job descriptions to do something extra for the organization.

Where did that culture come from, and why do we perpetuate it? As importantly, how might we be unintentionally perpetuating it in our daily interactions?

I don’t have answers to all of those questions… it is different in every organization and at different levels within the organization. I believe that the culture is set by leaders and is enforced by the first line supervisors. Every time a supervisor criticizes an employee and extols them to “stay in your lane” we inoculate the workers from exercising initiative. Every time a leader summarily dismisses a suggestion from an employee without truly considering its value, we ensure that those good ideas will stop coming. Every time a worker is told to “stay in their lane” you can bet that another condiment tray will sit empty while a bored private sits by and watches it.

Leaders can change the culture if they truly want to. Reinforcing behaviors that support a team-centric approach and rewarding positive initiative among your folks pays huge dividends over time. Letting people know that it is ok to act outside their job description as long as their actions are consistent with the mission and values of your organization is a great start. Backing that up with action (rewards, public praise, promotions, a simple “thank you,” etc.) is what will make it stick. Imagine what your organization might accomplish and how motivated your folks might be if everyone felt free to help each other despite their job description.

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