Asking Permission vs. Getting It Done

But won’t your manager be mad that you’re doing something that isn’t your job?
– A good friend after I told him about a project I was working on that would help the organization but was never explicitly requested.

What job description did you get hired into? – Two different people when I told them I accepted a job

What’s funny about these questions is not that I didn’t have an answer once they were asked, though both surprised me. It’s that it never crossed my mind to even ask them of myself.

Like when my friend sprained his ankle playing basketball and I asked him what happened, how he fell, how he landed.  Really getting a feel for the nature of his injury. When I got home, I shared news of the sprain with my wife and her first question was: “Who was he playing basketball with?” – that never even crossed my mind.

We aren’t wired to asked the same questions others might ask, but our questions reveal a lot about our mindset.  The questions my colleagues asked represent a common mentality in large corporations and illustrate a particular perspective of how we see our jobs.

There are two ways to define a set of laws: positive law and negative law.  Positive law states all the things we are allowed to do, everything else is prohibited.  Negative law forbids a set of actions and everything else is permitted.  As a result, negative law provides more freedom of action because it allows far more things.

This same distinction carries over to how we see our job. A “positive” job description describes the entire extent of what we do.  We don’t do anything else.  A negative job description says we avoid tasks that we’re explicitly prohibited from doing, but otherwise we do whatever needs to be done to help everyone succeed (not just the things we were asked to do).  We find new problems that maybe no one has seen and start working on solutions even though no one asked us to.

There is no doubt that it is much easier to be just a cog in the machine and do that, and only that, which has been explicitly demanded.  In a world filled with ambiguity and challenges, where employees are found all over the world, being a cog is not enough to be valued. Those above us in the organization are inundated with decisions and problems. They won’t see the things that we see.  We must look for the things that need to be done but that no one has asked us to do.  One of my favorite authors, Seth Godin, wrote a book called Linchpin that had this same message.  We must be the one that others count on to get the job done even if it’s beyond what’s explicitly asked of us.

No job description is explicitly negative (do everything EXCEPT this), but many people see their job description as a positive one (do this and only this) even though they don’t need to. I don’t define myself by the job description I was given nor do I limit myself to helping in only those ways.  Neither should you. We should look beyond just the work we’re supposed to do and figure out how we help make the whole organization work better together.  It’s far more rewarding and far more freeing.







One response to “Asking Permission vs. Getting It Done”

  1. Bill Gascoyne Avatar

    One of my all-time favorite truisms is “We are too busy mopping the floor to turn off the faucet.” Take the initiative to turn off the occasional faucet. I once wrote a program I called “LAMP” to do just that; it ended up saving a great many people a great deal of time.

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