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Job Descriptions: Killing the human spirit one bullet point at a time

By Leslie Gerdes

I tried once more.

I thought ample coffee, my go-to sweatpants, and a relaxing Sunday morning would make the difference. They didn't. My mind simply refused to engage with the job descriptions posted to my alma mater's job board. It kept zoning out and going over the same sentences, struggling to imagine anything beyond the text on my screen. This was strange behavior for my mind because it loves imagining various work scenarios.

My mind flitted through such scenarios with ease, simulating how I would act and feel in each case. In fact, an interesting Harvard study using an iPhone app reports that we spend half our waking lives in these daydreams—they're the brain's natural state. But scrolling through this job board was anything but easy and natural. My neurons were going on strike and taking their serotonin with them, and with each job post, I felt a bit sadder. Maybe work was work, and thinking it could be exciting or inspiring was just chasing a daydream.

Left: I sit on my couch and attempt to decode the jargon packed into mind-numbing job descriptions. Right: I sit in traffic and imagine: brainstorming sessions for a new ad campaign... discovering a new pattern in the data... brilliantly persuading a room of skeptics...

Nope. I couldn't accept that.

I closed my laptop to escape from the tedious lists of responsibilities and requirements. Then, like any sensible person, I quit my job, drained my savings, and began a crusade to fix the broken job-search process. Now, two years later, I'm tackling these job board gremlins in my first blog post.

So why are job descriptions so terrible? I started with two hypotheses.

H1: Job descriptions are so packed with jargon and buzzwords that they don't say anything.

The first job description I clicked on (scout's honor) during my investigation into this hypothesis opened with this line:

Strategists will be wholly responsible for discrete Strategy tasks and deliverables on cross-functional project teams, business development initiatives, and retainer accounts. (My translation: You will work alone and in a team. You will work on projects for current clients and help us get new clients.)

H2: The hiring manager's idea of a "qualified" candidate is absurd and demoralizing.

This same job description listed twenty-one qualifications and capabilities needed in a candidate. And yes, I re-counted just to make sure I wasn't accidentally off by eighteen.

I will dive deeper into both of these hypotheses in later posts. But the more important question to me was, "Why?" Why did people create such off-putting job descriptions?

So I ran an experiment and asked various friends to do two things. First, I asked them to explain to me what they did in their jobs. Everyone told me interesting, easy to understand stories. Next, I asked how they would write their responsibilities in a job description if they had to hire someone for their position. Cue trains going off tracks. Everyone struggled. Suddenly buzzwords and convoluted sentence structures took over. I had to stop many of them halfway through the first sentence because I truly felt bad for them (and I had no idea what they were saying).

And it hit me. People were architecting lists instead of telling stories.

For tens of thousands of years, people have been telling stories to each other. When people hear "stories," they think about Peter Pan or their grandpa's reminiscing. But many researchers in Cognitive Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology have devoted their careers to stories. They argue that human cognition, our very ability to think and process information, depends on stories.

We understand the world in terms of space, time, and causality. Harvard professor and experimental psychologist, Steven Pinker, explores these essential elements in How the Mind Negotiates Reality:

People assume that the world has a causal texture—that its events can be explained by the world’s very nature, rather than being just one damn thing after another. They also assume that things are laid out in space and time. ‘Time is nature’s way to keep everything from happening at once,’ according to a graffito, and 'Space is nature's way to keep everything from happening to me.'

Stories include these three essential elements. I opened this blog post with a story. It took place roughly two years ago (time); I was sitting next to my computer and coffee (space); lame job descriptions caused me to get upset (causality). It is not a happy coincidence that our brains need space, time, and causality to think and that stories just happen to have these three things. No, the structure of stories and human cognition evolved together.

Our brains weren't built for imperative sentences encoded with jargon and held together by bullet points. Quite simply, our brains were built for stories, and stories can save job descriptions. Effective job descriptions must accomplish two things: allow candidates to understand a job, and allow candidates to assess their ability and interests to do a job. I’ll describe how stories can help job descriptions do both.

Understanding the job

A job, not being a physical object such as a chair, lives in the minds of the hiring manager and his colleagues. It would be great if we all wore Braincaps like in the novel 3001: The Final Odyssey. Then the job could slip from the hiring manager’s brain right into ours. Thankfully, Mother Nature recognized the importance of sharing brains and had a few million years’ head start on the Braincap. As it turns out, we already have the ability to transfer what’s in our brains to someone else's. We do this by telling stories.

In a groundbreaking fMRI study, Princeton researchers recorded the brain responses of a woman as she told an unrehearsed real-life story. They also recorded the brain responses of people as they listened to a recording of her story. The fMRI recordings showed that the listeners' brains began to resemble the speaker's brain. Uri Hasson, associate professor of psychology at Princeton and one of the study’s authors, summed up the research and the power of stories:

Stories have a very strong impact on the brain. They’re very strong stimuli that can take control over the listener's brain... When people listened to a story, their brains responded in ways similar to the storyteller’s. Not an exact duplication, but pretty close. Their brains, basically, coupled.

As a follow-up, the researchers took the recorded story and scrambled the sentences so they no longer followed the narrative sequence. In this scenario, the brain of the storyteller as she said a sentence no longer matched the brains of the listeners as they heard the same sentence. It was the story, not the individual sentences, which connected the brains.

Just as the listeners in the Princeton study mentally acted out the story they were hearing, readers also mentally act out a story as they are reading. In an fMRI study out of Washington University, researchers found that readers' mental simulations of a story activated brain regions involved in performing the same real-world activities.

Therefore, a hiring manager can share his brain with candidates by writing a job story. And as candidates read the job story, they will mentally act out the role, which I'll argue in the next section is critical for assessing their fit with it. To demonstrate the powerful effect of a story, I took the first sentences of the job description I described earlier and transformed them into a narrative. I then had a handful of friends read both versions. Although they took roughly the same amount of time to read and process, my friends could only envision themselves in the role when they read the story version.

Assessing fit with the job

As we read a story, our brains call up similar stories from our memory to help us simulate what we are reading. Cognitive psychologists Roger Schank and Robert Abelson described memory and stories this way:

The task of an understander who has memory that is filled with stories is to determine which of those stories is most relevant to the situation at hand. He then uses the old story as a means for interpreting the new story.

A good analogy is that the story we are reading acts as a screenplay and our past experiences act as the film director, adding the acting and cinematography to our mental simulation. I'll refer back to the job story I created earlier. While you read that job story, you may have been reminded of a time you missed an important work deadline or the numerous all-nighters you pulled in grad school because of poor time management. So the film playing in your head is of a stressed-out procrastinator, editing PowerPoint slides late into the night and hoping to pull off a miracle.

Why do we create these mental simulations? For the same reason we spend so much time daydreaming. Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert sums it up best in his paper Why the brain talks to itself":

We know which future events will feel good and which will feel bad because we feel good or bad when we simulate them.

We don’t want to do poorly in a role nor do we want to dread going to work every day. By simulating a job in our heads, we can better predict how we would behave and feel in the job. Since you felt stressed in your simulation, you predict that you would be stressed in the job and therefore, decide not to apply. But accurate predictions depend on vivid mental simulation, and vivid simulations don’t spring from the text of a job description. They happen when hiring managers tell rich job stories. Roger Schank and Robert Abelson describe what makes stories special:

The more information we are provided with about a situation, the more places we can attach it to in memory and the more ways it can be compared to other cases in memory. Thus, a story is useful because it comes with many indexes. These indexes may be locations, attitudes, beliefs, quandaries, decisions, conclusions, or whatever... the more indexes, the greater the number of comparisons to prior experiences and hence the greater the learning.

By switching to job stories with their many indexes, hiring managers could also ditch the contrived list of candidate qualifications. Instead of stating "3-5 years of marketing experience," the job story would naturally remind us of relevant work experience. Those of us with backgrounds outside of marketing would be free to imagine a different but brilliant way to do the job. As Schank and Abelson go on to point out:

When a prior experience is indexed cleverly, we can call it to mind to help us understand a current situation. This process can lead to brand new insights.

I believe stories can solve many of the problems facing recruiting, like how to engage passive searchers or find people with the right skills. But my last nagging question was: If our brains are built for stories, then how did job descriptions in their present form come to dominate recruiting? Who thought they were ever a good idea?!

A job description only engages the language processing parts of our brains. A job story engages our whole brains and enables a job seeker to envision the scenarios described by a hiring manager.

Job descriptions have their roots in the factories of America at the turn of the century. Frederick Taylor, a mechanical engineer, developed the process of job analysis, by which factory jobs could be broken down, analyzed, and the “one best way” to do them discovered. Managers then used these detailed job plans to direct workers and improve efficiency.

Job descriptions migrated out of the factories and into the large human resources departments of the 1950s, the period of The Organizational Man. In these large bureaucratic companies, managers used job descriptions to internally move people, determine pay grades, and make a system of lifetime employment run smoothly.

When you understand the history of job descriptions, their oppressive structure makes sense. Job descriptions were created to tell workers how to do structured tasks. They were never intended to attract unique talent to a company. When the internet exploded onto the recruiting scene in the late 1990s, people needed something to post to online job boards, and job descriptions provided a convenient standard.

But rigid job descriptions don’t make any sense as a tool to attract knowledge workers to broad, adaptive roles. Taylor, the godfather of job descriptions, famously said, "In the past, the man has been first; in the future, the system must be first." In today’s rapidly changing world, I would argue the exact opposite is true. If companies want to compete, they will need to recruit people who can operate outside of well-defined systems.

And while job descriptions may speak the language of human resources, job stories speak the language of us resourceful humans.