Hidden Curriculums and Improving Work Performance
Jesse Sostrin talks about the reality behind most jobs that go beyond advertised job descriptions—where employees face far more challenges than they are led to believe. Jesse calls this the “hidden curriculum” that is concealed and ambiguous, and doesn’t adequately prepare most of us for what lies ahead. To improve work performance and succeed over the long run, employees must recognize and excel at this hidden curriculum of work—and they have only themselves to depend on. In his book, Jesse provides research-driven insights, diagnostic tools, and stories of employees and leaders who have managed to turn their greatest challenges at work into opportunities for breakthrough performance. In a nutshell, it’s about taking charge of your destiny at work and preparing yourself for your job’s unforeseen, unprepared challenges…by figuring out what vital role and value-added contributions your skills can bring to bear to improve your job performance.
Change, Mutual Agendas, and Adding Value
Moreover, jobs are constantly changing, especially in today’s performance-oriented global economy, and are impacting managers and employees alike. Therefore, it’s important to develop a “mutual agenda” that promotes workplace engagement as well as the organization’s larger goals. To get beyond, Jesse lists four items that fill in the missing parts. Jesse’s book translates the world of work and leads readers on a critical path to discover the mutual agenda where your individual values and aspirations align with the needs of the team and the goals of your organization. Know what is most important right now and focus on the vital purpose and value-added contributions that can help you stand out and stay ahead of the change curve. Establish a system to identify hidden challenges that undermine your performance and learn to transform those barriers into opportunities for improved learning and performance—and develop a clear vision and plan to achieve the working life you want.
It’s not about loving your job but about loving the process of trying to do the best you can to maximize your time at work—to improve work performance in ways that benefit you and your organization equally.
Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital. Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions. Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances. The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.
Steve Pomeranz: Remember back to your first few days on the new job? You most likely quickly discovered that the job description that explained your role was quite different from the reality you faced. In other words, your entire working life is based on a myth. It all began when you arrived for your interview. Let’s dig in deeper with my next guest. His name is Dr. Jesse Sostrin; he has a Ph.D., and he writes, speaks, and consults about the changing world of work. His book is Beyond the Job Description: How Managers and Employees Can Navigate the True Demands of the Job. Welcome to the show Jesse.
Jesse Sostrin: Thanks for having me on today.
Steve Pomeranz: Nobody tells us this when we’re hired, but the day we’re hired, we’ve actually accepted two jobs. What are they?
Jesse Sostrin: Well, it is the dirty little secret that our job descriptions lie, or at least they only tell part of the picture. At one level, they tie us to these vague expectations about what we should be doing, and I think that gives us a false sense of hope that if we achieve them we’ll somehow be successful. In reality, they only tell part of the story. Every one of us, with regards to whatever industry we’re in, face increasing challenges of staying ahead of the change curve and remaining relevant in a competitive market. There’s challenges to getting great work done everywhere. We’re dealing with unseen politics in the office, difficult people that we have to work with, and, of course, the constantly changing priorities that sometimes we’ve got turned around. That’s the double reality of work.
Steve Pomeranz: I used to work for a large brokerage firm, and the manager would go to New York, come down with what amounted to the 10 Commandments. These are the 10 things that we are going to be doing for the next six months. About 4 weeks later I’d say “Bill, what happened to those 10 things?” He looked at me, he didn’t know what I was even talking about because it was another 10 things that had supplanted it. You’ve got a constantly changing environment and work, and you’ve got this job description which is kind of a list of things you do, but there’s a whole other world at there. You call it the hidden curriculum. Describe that.
Jesse Sostrin: The hidden curriculum is a concept that was coined in the realm of education. I have since used it in the world of work because, to me, it really describes this idea of a job within the job that we all face. A hidden curriculum exists when there are two simultaneous challenges where one is visible and clear and understood, but the other one is a little bit more concealed and ambiguous. For example, professional athletes. They’ve got to master the fundamentals of their sport and excel at the highest level of the court or field of play, but that still doesn’t teach them how to deal with wealth, fame, and the many other challenges and distractions that come with professional sports. Same things with children at school; they have to master the fundamental educational standards in their curriculum, but reading and math and science don’t prepare the peer pressure, the social dynamics, and those awkward all way conversations that the challenges of youth bring. In the same, I think there is this hidden curriculum of work that we have to encounter and, unfortunately, most of us do it through trial and error with the scars to prove it.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I don’t think anybody really is aware that there is this other agenda and that we bump into it and we don’t really know how to handle it. I think that’s where the bruises that you alluded to come from.
Is this hidden curriculum of work, is it the same for everyone?
Jesse Sostrin: I don’t think it is. I think it varies, we’re all different people, our industry requires different things from us, but I think there are some fundamentals that translate. The first one is that we’re kind of on our own. I don’t want to overstate it, but many organizations have virtually abandoned the investment in their people as far as professional development and career growth. If we are our own HR department, we’re our own career coach, we’ve got to learn to pay ourselves first. This is why I appreciate your show covering my book because I’m not an expert to talk about the keys to a long, successful working life from a 401K choice standpoint, but the investment that we make in ourselves is really what pays the dividend to create the working life we want. I think all of us and our own hidden curriculum of work have to face up to the challenge of staying relevant. What purpose can we play in the organization, what value added contributions can we deliver, solve crucial problems beyond our job description, and, of course, getting really, really good at turning those everyday headaches into opportunities to boost our own learning and performance. To me, that’s a universal must.
Steve Pomeranz: This is an investment show, and the reason that I chose to interview you is that one investment that we don’t spend a lot of time on is the investment in ourselves, and that’s the one that’s going to pay the biggest dividend. You’re going to make all this money for a lifetime; you need to learn how to invest in yourself and you need to learn what some of the tricks that can be played upon you so you can do it more effectively.
You have these two simultaneous challenges; one is visible and clear and understood and the other is concealed and ambiguous and undefined. If I’m now to sit down, I’m hearing this interview, and I’m looking at your book, and I’ve decided, okay, how do I do a little self-inventory here? What questions can I ask myself to determine what this hidden curriculum is?
Jesse Sostrin: I like to think about it in small moves because I think most of us get overwhelmed if there’s a 20-point plan. If you just pick a point in time, let’s say, today, and you ask three basic questions. I just allude to them, but I think this is the first incremental move that anybody can make to discover their job within their job. Thinking about the meetings and the conversations that you have planned for that day, what vital purpose can you play? Are you going to be the catalyst that gets thing moving? Are you going to be the truth-teller that raises the hard question? Are you going to be the storyteller that gets people inspired in their vision? What is that unique purpose and, then again, what are the value-added contributions that you can deliver in those key interactions? Meaning, what skills and competencies do you draw on that actually anticipate and kind of surface the challenges and opportunities that the team faces that they may not even know exist, and how can you get out in front of those?
Then, finally, what are those pitfalls or those challenges? In my book, I ask a very exhaustive list, and there’s an assessment tool on how to identify those, but I think most of us can go to bed at night wondering what awaits tomorrow because these little things keep us up at night, they gnaw at us. These are the challenges that we’ve got to confront and figure out how to turn them into opportunities for growth. Those three questions I think are a starting place for anybody to start.
Steve Pomeranz: Seems to me that this fits into the category to some sense of making yourself indispensable. Jobs are changing on a weekly, monthly basis. The role, the opportunities your company is facing, the challenges of the role changing, they’re expecting you to change. They’re not just hiring you to push paperwork around; everybody needs help in becoming a part of the team that is going to address successfully these changes. You’re dealing in a very, very dynamic environment, and you’re trying to figure out how can I become indispensable? Now, you as an employee have these challenges of the hidden curriculum, but, you know, if everybody does in the organization, your boss has one too. Now, it’s a re-thinking, well, now, my boss has one, so how do you align your hidden curriculum or agenda with your boss’s?
Jesse Sostrin: That’s a great question, and I think it points to a pretty hard truth in our working lives, and that is that we’re stuck with each other. I know that a lot of employees feel threatened in today’s hyper-competitive job market. The investment or the lack of investment I spoke about earlier in our own growth leaves us looking over our shoulders wondering if somebody smarter, younger, and faster is right behind us. We also know that organizations and the leaders and managers that represent them are also threatened. Competitive pressures are squeezing margins on every side and, of course, it does make sense that you’re going to cut your investment in people, the biggest line item in your budget.
If we don’t strike what I call the mutual agenda, which is where that overlapping space is where individual aspirations and desires meet organizational priorities and team goals, then we’re working against each other. I think every manager or every leader who’s responsible for their organization’s success in some way needs to consider, is my team working in that mutual agenda where they’re getting what they want, they’re contributing the things that add value to their own working lives, and they feel good about it which of course means a cycle of more engagement and more solid performance that’s likely to ensue or are the alienated? Are they in this cycle of disability-engagement? We know 71% of US workers would say they’re just not that into their jobs.
Steve Pomeranz: Interesting. My guest is Dr. Jesse Sostrin. He’s the author of Beyond the Job Description: How Managers and Employees Can Navigate the True Demands of the Job. Jesse, there’s no common language to describe this hidden side of work and, therefore, as you write, a ferocious cycle ensues where you keep doing the same thing over and over again and never really get a different result. You list four items here that describe this hidden side of work. Can you go through them for me?
Jesse Sostrin: Yeah, and I think the reason that work can be so frustrating and can really take us in some really dark places is because we’re hired and paid to do a job, but we’re only given a partial picture of what’s needed to succeed at it. We’re kind of left on our own to understand the missing part of the picture and to figure out our own path to success, but, all the while, we’re not really rewarded any differently if we succeed, but we could still face consequences if we fail to meet the job’s demands.
Again, I think if fear has a place in your working life where you’re thinking “Gosh, I don’t even know if this the right job for me or the right company” and you’re wondering at the crossroads “should I stay or should I go?”, I encourage you to think about, in what ways can you go beyond the job description where you’re at right now. Rediscovering the vital purpose, those value-added contributions and ways to engage with the challenges you face to see if you can’t create some movement. You don’t necessarily have to love your job, but if you fall in love with that process of really delivering your greatest contributions to work it creates an opening.
Whether you stay or go, you do it on your own terms and that “paying yourself first” investment that’s going to really pay dividends for a long time.
Steve Pomeranz: If you’re a manager of people, your goal is going to, of course, to get them to be as productive as possible, to help you reach your goals, how do you help your employee discover their job within the job? Final words.
Jesse Sostrin: It’s ironic when you think about it, if you asked your old manager that you spoke about who would go to headquarters and get the new assignment and the 10 commandments, if you asked him or her “How much do you know about the everyday challenges I face? Do you have a clear sense of what’s on my plate? Do you know what keeps me up at night and what my major challenges are to doing my best work?” They likely wouldn’t have a clear idea, so I think the role of manager is to really understand the job within the job of the direct reports that they’re responsible for. How much do you know about it? What would happen and what would shift in the quality of that working relationship if a manager invested time in saying “Let me re-direct on you this. Let me make sure we’re in this mutual agenda where you’re clear about the team’s priorities or where your best talents and skills are aligned with that.” While it might seem cliché if you happen to be in a culture where it’s bureaucratic and it may even be a toxic workplace, the small incremental steps can actually take back your power over your working life. Employees can initiate it and forward thinking managers can also initiate it.
Steve Pomeranz: Seems like your book is a guide to navigating the work environment of, especially, concentrating on a part that nobody really has delineated very well before, this hidden curriculum, this hidden agenda. So many of us, no matter how well we’re educated really just aren’t prepared for. It goes across all professions, and I like the fact that you use even children as an example; your child goes to school, they’re supposed to learn the basic skills but there’s all of these other challenges that they have to face and the parent here being kind of like the manager, needs to help the child prepare for this hidden curriculum. The book is Beyond the Job Description: How Managers and Employees Can Navigate the True Demands of the Job. My guest Dr. Jesse Sostrin. Thank you so much, Jesse. It’s been quite informative.
Jesse Sostrin: Thanks for having me.