How leaders can account for, and leverage, the "job tax"

UCT GSB's Dr Tim London: Maximise staff engagement by understanding the tasks they love and hate.

If you’ve ever worked for a paycheck before, you’ll be familiar with the terrible feeling of looking at the line that states your gross pay for the period followed by the significantly smaller number that is your actual take home pay.

Obviously, we know we have to pay tax and we understand that, in the big scheme of things, we pay taxes to create benefits for the wider system via paved roads, healthcare, education, or other services that benefit everyone.

Still, paying tax is frustrating and it’s often a key issue when it comes time to decide who we will vote for and how we will plan our own financial lives. While I’m certainly no tax expert in the financial and economic spheres, I have been using this as a metaphor for encouraging leaders to understand and make the most of their team’s talents.

Specifically, I have been working with leaders to better understand what their team members will perceive as a “tax” on them. In other words, when I give Bob a task, is it something that he’s excited to do, willing to do, or is going to look at as something that he simply has to do even though he doesn’t like it?

Just like few of us live tax-free financially, almost everyone has some sort of “job tax” that comes with their position. It might be the sales director who loves working with her team, but not the weekly financial reporting; the head of marketing who loves designing the pitch, but hates the presentation of it; or the accounts manager who is brilliant at keeping existing clients happy but loathes the cold calling involved in winning new business.

As noted above, the goal of a leader is not to create some sort of utopia where everyone loves their job all the time, but if you really want to have engaged and productive workers, it is essential that leaders understand what each of their colleagues sees as a tax they must pay in order to do the parts of their jobs that they like.

Before we talk about how this plays out in practice, there is one key point to make about the idea of a job tax: it’s not just how long the tasks take, it’s also about just how onerous or unpleasant the person finds that task.

So, if you’re one of the many people who simply don’t like responding to e-mails (which often takes up a good portion of one’s day), that’s not too bad of a tax even if it takes a long time; if you take your most introverted colleague and ask them to do a 10 minute presentation, it’s likely to be seen as a far greater tax for them, even though it’s of a much shorter duration. If you accept that premise, and wish to make the most of it, there are a few key steps that savvy leaders need to take.

Step 1: Know your people (titles can actually get in the way!)
I talk a lot about getting to know the values of the people you work with, and sharing your own values with them. This helps you move past job titles and descriptions which can actually be incredibly misleading in some respects.

This often plays out by treating all people with the same years of experience or with the same job title as the same people. This may result in giving everyone the same amount or range of work, trainings on the same topics in the same ways, and other things that might be equal, but don’t maximise the individual skills and interests of your people.

Getting to know what’s most important to them, what they’re most excited about, and what they dislike the most (as well as the reasons why they feel these ways) can help you really understand what parts of the job are going to be appealing to them and which parts will actually be a “tax” for them.

The result is that everyone on your team can be working at full capacity, but hopefully spending as much time as possible on the work they are most interested in. So if you’ve got multiple “third year analysts”, you can play to each of their strengths and make sure the introvert isn’t trapped giving client presentations or that your team member who is a master of qualitative data isn’t trapped crunching numbers for large parts of their day.

The only way to know that, however, is to get beyond their job title or years of experience, and ensure you get to know what drives them, why they work in the field, and what they’re hoping to get from their work. That then leads to a key leadership task: communicating that information in useful ways to others.

Step 2: Communicate rationales for different assignments for people, especially those in the same pay grade/job title
Because most people who have worked in organisations are used to a focus on equality or uniformity of work across the same job title, it’s essential that a different approach such as this is accompanied with extremely clear explanations throughout the process. This is important for the person who is taking on the task because it helps them to understand why you’re giving them a certain task they may not have been expecting.
In that process, you can also explain if you’re giving it to them because you know they’ll like it based on Step 1, or it may be an opportunity for you to soften the blow by explaining why even though you know they won’t like it, it’s necessary for the team that they take it on. In this way, while they still might have to pay the tax, they appreciate that it’s not arbitrary and they are more likely to understand that even though they don’t like it, it’s for a greater good, which can make the tax more palatable.

Step 3: Make their development planning long term, not just quarter by quarter
Finally, it’s important to build on Steps 1 and 2 by building all of this into a long-term development plan for your people. As in Step 2, this can again mean giving someone tasks they don’t like, but couched in a way where it’s part of their development.

In many organisations, moving into new roles means having a more diverse skill set, which means we can’t spend our careers just doing a narrow band of tasks if we want to move up into roles that are more strategic and cross cutting (not that every one of your people will want that!). Just as in Step 2, explaining that the perhaps undesirable task you’re asking someone to take on will help them to develop the career you understand them wanting to have, can give unpleasant tasks a much more positive spin by making them constructive and targeted to the specific needs of each person.

While leaders will never get all of their people only doing work they like all the time, the above steps can help maximise the engagement of your people and also help to bind them together as a team. This not only makes individuals more productive, but it builds a focus on the group into every individual task, which will have longer term impacts on the quality of your organisational culture.