Let Employees Do What They Do Best By Stopping ‘Responsibility Creep’

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Nov 25, 2019

Responsibility creep is where top performers (because of their success record) continually get new responsibilities piled on them. Eventually, they don’t spend much of their time “doing what they do best.” They end up spending as much as 60% of their time doing work that they don’t like doing and that they are not especially good at. The net result is that your biggest contributors become frustrated, less productive and turnover risks.

Fortunately, you can almost instantly improve top performer productivity, retention, and innovation by reducing their non-optimal responsibilities and leaving only the portion of their work that “they do best.”

I bet it has happened to you

If you’re a top performer, I bet that this has happened to you. It happens because you get things done and you are always trying to help your team. And as a result, new responsibilities are constantly added to your plate. Eventually, this responsibility creep unnecessarily drains much of the excitement out of your workday. When all you really want is to spend the majority of your day doing the things that you really enjoy and excel at. You feel like Tiger Woods, all you want to do is practice and play golf, but your managers have you attending meetings and writing reports a majority of the time. And, you hate it.

Common “responsibility creep” areas that many top performers simply don’t want to spend time on include team leadership roles, long-term planning, attending meetings, assessing vendors, writing reports and making presentations.

As an author, I can tell you that I love writing and it provides me with immense excitement and joy. However, I loathe editing, cutting down my pieces and working with book publishers. And, if I never spent another minute on any of these “not fun for me responsibilities,” I would be a much happier person.

60% of your team may not be doing what they do best

Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report found that just 4 in 10 employees strongly agree they actually get the opportunity to do what they do best every day. To the manager of the team, that could mean that as many as 60% of your workers on your team are not “doing their best work.”

Not doing your best work directly impacts retention

It’s important to note that Gallup found that “doing what you do best” is a primary retention factor among their Q12 retention and engagement factors. Gallup also found that the #1 attraction factor when seeking a new role at a new company is “the ability to do what they do best.”

The best are likely to always be looking for opportunities to do their best work. Frustration with not meeting that goal often drives the overburdened to consider and accept an outside position that promises them the luxury of spending most of their time doing what they’re really good at and what they thoroughly enjoy. And because it is the number one attraction factor, your recruiting function should strive to show top candidates that they will have the freedom and the ability to “do what they do best” if they join your firm.

In addition to retention, it’s important to make sure that every manager understands that “doing your best work” options also increase individual and team productivity. For example, because you have purposely increased the amount of time your top technical employees spend doing things that directly take advantage of their advanced skills and experience, you’ll improve productivity. If the added time gained from reducing low-value work is instead spent on innovation, the ROI may even be higher.

The top 8 action steps for ensuring that employees to do what they do best

In many cases merely spending time with an employee in an effort to ensure they are doing their best work will increase both retention and productivity. Fortunately reducing responsibility creep by helping your top employee shed “low-interest work” only requires some simple management actions. They include:

1. Prioritize workers who must be doing their best work

It’s not realistic to expect every employee on a team will spend 80% of their time doing what they do best. So the most effective approach begins by prioritizing the individuals on the team with advanced capabilities that must be continually utilized. Normally that includes no more than 25% of the technical workers on a team. It also makes sense to hold an all-hands meeting to fully explain to all (including those not prioritized) why everyone benefits when those with advanced capabilities stop doing low-interest work.

2. Conduct a “time spent doing my best work” survey

At least once a year around their anniversary date, survey your targeted employees and ask them what percentage of their time to spend on average doing what they do best, and what they enjoy. Include a section in the survey where they can list the responsibilities and things that they want to do “more of” and what they want to do “less of” during the upcoming year. You might also ask them what percentage of their time they spend utilizing their most advanced skills and experience.

3. Or ask your target employees to keep a work log

If estimates are not enough, ask your target employees to complete a work log so you can gather baseline data for each individual covering exactly where they currently allocate their time. Have your target employees keep a work log for at least two weeks. Tthen meet with them one-on-one to ensure everybody understands where they spend their time and how often they utilize their advanced skills.

4. Identify their best work areas by using a “What does your best day at work look like” sheet

Provide your targeted employees with a sheet that allows them to share what “My best day at work” would look like for them. Include on the sheet “Things I love to do at work” categories to spur their thinking. Those categories might include work responsibilities, skills used, time to think, tools they would like to use and people they would love to work with. Also include a category of things that they would like to avoid at all costs. If you hold regular stay interviews with your top talent, that would be a good time to ask them to complete a “best day at work” sheet.

5. Create a “you can only add if you subtract” rule

You can help avoid responsibility overload by instituting a strict policy that you can only add a new duty to a designated “doing their best work employee” if two conditions are met. First, they really want it added. And second, only when a corresponding low-interest duty of theirs requiring the same amount of time is taken off their plate.

6. Create an “I never want to do that again” list

Sometimes employee frustration can be reduced quickly by simply eliminating work that a targeted employee intensely dislikes. Simply ask them to make a list of “Things I wish I will never have to do again,” and then develop a plan to ensure that those things indeed are never assigned to this employee again.

7. Identify a pool of workers that will readily accept “I don’t enjoy that work”

Remember that in some cases low-interest work should simply be stopped. But in other cases, if it still has value, the work just needs to be done by someone who enjoys doing it. Start by making a list of workers that the manager can shift low-interest work to. Employees on this list might include “underutilized employees,” utility players or support staff (including recent hires, part-timers, contractors, and interns) that are capable of accepting any of the shed responsibilities. Cross-training can also increase the number of workers that can accept any shed work. But avoid shifting important work to weak employees.

For example, I teach at a business school that once had a policy of assigning extra classes to low performing professors as a form of punishment. That, of course, had the unintended consequence of degrading the overall teaching effort. Whatever you do, don’t assign high-priority work to low performers that don’t have the skills and don’t enjoy doing it.

8. Provide an opportunity marketplace

Rather than just taking away low-interest duties, some firms make it easy for individuals to add more exciting responsibilities. Firms like Google post their open projects, rotations and part-time assignments for all to see and bid on. Making new opportunities highly visible makes it easier for a top employee to voluntarily add a responsibility that really excites them.

Some additional ways for maximizing best work

In addition to the most commonly used approaches outlined in the previous section, t:here are also many alternative approaches you might also want to consider. They include

  • If you were “the boss of you” scenario – One of the best ways to find out what a top employee would like to be doing is known as the “if you were the boss of you” approach. You simply ask the employee to imagine they are their own boss: “How specifically would you redesign your own current responsibilities?” Have them include what duties they would emphasize, keep the same, and which ones they would drop. And then it’s their actual manager’s role to shift their job duties as much as possible to meet their wishes.
  • Have a “You DON’T have the right to remain silent” rule – You can stop some of the responsibility creep by empowering your employees to speak up. Let them know it’s their responsibility to speak up whenever they are asked to accept another low-interest responsibility. Or when they find that the majority of their time is not spent doing what they do best. Obviously, managers have to respond quickly whenever a top-performing employee actually speaks up.
  • Put a cap on commonly disliked duties if you find most of your top performers share a common dislike for certain areas like administration or representing the group on a committee. Make it a standard rule for your “best work employees” to limit those types of activities to 20% of their work hours.
  • Require continually updated job descriptions – One of the primary causes of responsibility creep is a fact that few employees have written job descriptions that are current. In order to make it crystal clear what they’re currently expected to do, make it a rule that an employee’s job description must be updated in writing every six months to reflect their “real work.” And then don’t conduct performance appraisals without a current job description.
  • Scheduled free time – Firms like Google give their proven technical workers 20% free time to work on their own projects and to innovate. That ensures that at least 20% of their time their employees are doing what they are good at and what they care most about.
  • Compile a list of individual employee motivators – Sometimes employees don’t actually know what job responsibilities they really enjoy doing. A manager can help them begin to figure that out by asking them to compile a list of things that motivate them. Once a manager knows what motivates them they can use that information when making assignments. For example, if a manager knows an employee is motivated by seeing “their work makes a difference,” the manager can change their job so the employee regularly interacts with customers that benefit from their work. Unfortunately, I have found that when tested, managers often know less than 40% of the factors that motivate each of their top employees.
  • Post-exit interviews – Don’t expect standard exit interviews to reveal that your top performers are leaving because of responsibility creep. Instead use post-exit interviews (which are delayed 3 to 6 months) to more accurately find out the real causes of turnover.
  • The “best work” approach can also be used on job finalists to assess fit, if you really want an accurate measure of new-hire fit. Start by asking finalists to fill out a “dream day at work” list. And then compare it to what they will actually experience if they get the job. And never make the mistake of hiring someone who is so desperate for a job they would accept a major mismatch. It will result in an unhappy new hire spending most of their time doing things that they’re not good at and that they don’t enjoy.

The economic benefits of a promotion can reduce doing your best work

The biggest roadblock to implementing a “best work model” are complaints from HR administrators not wanting to continually update job descriptions. But a roadblock that can’t be ignored is the power the economic benefits from a promotion have over an employee who wants to do their best work.

Accepting a promotion for money often has the unintended consequences of reducing the time that top technical performers spend doing technical work using their advanced skills, and instead substituting leadership, administrative or management duties. In other words, their desire for more money is forcing them to voluntarily reduce their “best work duties,” replacing them with duties a technical person might not be good at, and in many cases, don’t enjoy.

The best practice is to minimize the draw of promotions by finding a way to give your top technical people more money without forcing them to take a promotion into a leadership or management role. Some firms assign the employee to “Fellow” status to justify giving more money to people in critical technical areas who really shouldn’t be managers.

Final thoughts

The best measure of employee excitement I have found, and use, is the “I can’t wait to begin work tomorrow pillow test.” It measures work excitement by asking employees, “How many days during the last month, when your head hit the pillow at night, did you immediately think, ‘I can’t wait to begin my work tomorrow’?” Obviously, if your top employees are not doing what they do best, that number may actually be zero. Fortunately, I know of numerous cases where the number is actually an amazing 30.

So, if you want to increase an employee’s pillow test number, I recommend that you stop worrying about the pay, the benefits and work/life balance. Instead, focus on “the work,” because it is literally the most important factor in top-performing employee motivation and retention. The best way to do that is to identify the strengths and interests of your top employees and make sure that they’re actually using those strengths at least 80% of their workweek.