Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: How To Describe A Job (So People Will Do It)

Problem #1: You can't get people. You have a big thing to do.  It's too much for you alone.  You need to draft some helpers; but when you ask, they scatter.  No one seems to want to come on board.  Are you doomed to paddle solo, sink, and drown in the Sea of Overwhelming Responsibility?

Problem #2:  You CAN get people.  It just seems like you've gotten all the wrong ones.  You did your asking, and they responded.  But now it seems like everyone wants to revamp the project to suit his or her own agenda.  There are conflicts and wounded egos. Your progress is hobbled by the volume of continual one-on-one interventions you need to do to set things right.  What happened to cooperation?

It's never easy to get people to commit to a volunteer effort.  It takes a compelling vision to get them to even consider joining a cause, staffing a charity event, or donating their expertise.  But even if you can paint a motivating picture, you still might come up short when gifted volunteers refuse to give their time.

In a workplace situation, you face similar issues.  A special project often requires you to ask people to go beyond their set job descriptions.  Sure, there's a compelling business reason for action -- but it may not feel compelling to the people you need to recruit.  And even if you can present it as a great opportunity (for career advancement, personal fulfillment, or whatever), they may still balk.

The issue, in both instances: fear.

People are afraid to say yes to something until they know exactly what it is they're saying yes to.  And that goes double for the best people --  the people who take commitments seriously and are reliable.  They're that way because they are careful to say yes only to those things that they know they can do.

What about the people who aren't so reliable?  Sometimes they're your only takers for that "please help!" emergency assignment.  But they come with a cost.  Make no mistake: however noble your cause, and however altruistic your intentions, human nature is still in play -- and some people who agree to take on extra work will only end up being extra work.

Their issue: self-interest.

People who do something because they're asked to, usually feel entitled to get something in return. This means that they often assume they have permission to ignore timelines, boss their fellow workers, and/or apply their own enhancements, workarounds, and exceptions to the task at hand.  

So how do you kill these two birds - fear, and entitlement -- with one stone?

Simple.  When you do your asking, don't leave things to chance.  Instead, make the scope of the commitment clear by presenting a short but pithy description of the task you want your askees to do.

An effective explanation of the job at hand should:
 a) establish a framework - answer all your potential volunteer's unvoiced objections (before they can use them as excuses for not signing up)
b) set boundaries - give a clear understanding about what is, and what isn't, involved (before people start inventing their own interpretations)

My personally-developed formula for a Volunteer Job Description follows the acronym SPAN.  It outlines four key elements of a job, giving just enough detail so the prospective recruit can understand the scope of his or her commitment.

Think of a task you've had to recruit for recently -- or one that you've wanted to recruit for, but haven't felt comfortable doing so.  It could be large or small; at your job, at your charity, or even at home. As you read through the four elements below, try relating them to your task and see how they apply.

The SPAN Job Description

S = Service - First, tell how this task will serve a meaningful purpose.  Relate it to a larger mission that fits the values of your potential recruit.   People want to feel that their actions matter.

P = Process - Next,explain the mechanics of the task.  What will the person need to do, and when?  People want to know enough about a task to determine whether it's a good fit with their capability and availability.

A = Accountability - Go on to outline the chain of command: whom the recruit will report to and who will report to them.  Also clarify what support resources are available to the recruit, such as advisers, substitute staff or emergency contacts.  Finally, what will the recruit be accountable for in terms of documentation, reporting, etc.?  People need to know what the rules are, where they are allowed autonomy, and where they are not.

N = Non-Routine - This is simply a catch-basin category for anything out of the ordinary that may otherwise blindside your gifted volunteers.  You need them to know, ahead of time, that they may also be called upon to handle some non-routine (and possibly mundane) situations.  So end your job description by saying something like, "From time to time, you may also be asked to (attend training sessions, collate materials, drive someone to the airport, etc)."  People need to know where they need to be flexible -- but they also need to know the boundaries of that flexibility.

When your request for help features the four elements above, you get fool-proof results.  You attract the right people, and repel the wrong ones.  And you set the stage for success by setting expectations for success.

I've used this SPAN outline for years, in both non-profit and business environments, with great results.  It has become my ATM card for withdrawing good, reliable help from the Bank of Goodhearted Givers.  That's why I now devote serious SPAN prep time to any request for help that I need to make.  I want to be sure that I frame out the request to help my volunteers -- and me -- begin on the right foot, and end with the right results.  That's also why I supply a written (not just verbal) SPAN Job Description to every recruit.   If troubles arise, I want to be able to go back and ask any one of them, "When I asked you to be on the team, I thought the job description made it clear that we need to do X. Is there a reason why you changed that to Y?"  With SPAN, pivotal points are made plain up front, so performance issues can be quickly resolved.

So next time you need to round up a posse to get something done, don't go into it blind.  Get yourself the best volunteers, and guarantee everyone the best experience, by setting solid expectations beforehand.  Use SPAN job descriptions to tell people what they're saying "yes" to.  You'll get more yeses -- more cooperation -- and more remarkable results for your project.  

PS:  Please post a comment if you have found this helpful! Also, I have a sample SPAN Job Description that I'll be glad to send to anyone who requests it.  Just leave a request with your comment on this post and I'll get it to you.


  1. A helpful framework Beth. Will be using this! -- @blessingmpofu

  2. Welcome, Blessing! Glad you found this simple tool to be useful. Please feel free to check out other posts here!