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The Hidden Curriculum of Work

Official job descriptions don’t include the most valuable contributions you make or the complicated challenges you face.

What do you do for work? Not, what is your job title, or what’s written in your official job description? But what do you actually do?

It’s potentially the most important question you can ask yourself if you care about standing out, staying ahead of the change curve, and continuously elevating your performance to gain access to choice assignments and opportunities to advance.

This is because the value you deliver, the results you produce, and the impact you have on others come more often from the execution of unspoken intangibles that are not reflected in your title, job description, or the daily tasks and activities you’re responsible for. This severe mismatch is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the true demands of work.

Nobody told you this, but the day you were hired you actually accepted two jobs. The first was the position you interviewed for, including all of the tasks outlined in that job description. The second “job-within-the-job” included the unspoken, unwritten work that, among other challenges, requires you to manage constant change, collaborate well with others, navigate workplace politics, and get your best work done in an environment of shrinking resources and increasing demands. Nobody trained you to succeed in this hidden work, and you have to learn how to confront its everyday pitfalls. And although you can reach out to trusted colleagues for input, the pace of work and pressure to perform often limit our willingness to reflect, formulate questions, and take the time to seek guidance.

Nobody told you this, but the day you were hired you actually accepted two jobs.

As if this isn’t difficult enough, staying relevant at work requires you to get ahead of the change curve by steadily increasing your skills and abilities and finding innovative ways to go beyond your job description to add new value to your organization. These two elements combined — the challenges of your job-within-the-job plus the need to add value to your organization through continuous learning and performance — represent what I call the hidden curriculum of work.

The term hidden curriculum was coined by the educator Philip Jackson in 1968, and then elaborated upon by MIT’s Benson Snyder in 1970. Both explored the concept within the realm of education and youth development. I applied a new, expanded definition of the term to the workplace in my post-graduate research beginning in 2006.

A hidden curriculum exists whenever there are two simultaneous challenges where one is visible, clear, and understood and the other is concealed, ambiguous, and undefined. Take, for example, the lives of professional athletes. They must master the fundamentals of their sport and excel at the highest level on the court or field, but they also have to learn how to navigate murkier waters like wealth, fame, and other distractions that can arise. Similarly, when children enter school, they have to master their academic curriculum but, reading, math, and science do not prepare them for peer pressure, social dynamics, and developmental challenges of youth.

In the same way, we all encounter a hidden curriculum of work, regardless of tenure, level, or role. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you’re navigating your own hidden curriculum.

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Consider this example: An emerging leader, recently promoted to manager, is challenged by her boss to “step it up” and is given a clear mandate: “Work closely with key stakeholders outside of your department to improve collaboration and achieve the company’s objectives of increased innovation.”

The expectation is now visible and, on the surface, easily understood. But a closer look reveals a range of complexities, judgment calls, and potential pitfalls that can derail her. To fulfill the mandate, she must:

• Know her own department’s goals, as well as the company’s objectives, well enough to interpret what is most important among many competing demands
• Understand the varied communication habits among the different stakeholders, including the various “triggers” to avoid
• Stay mentally flexible and willing to adapt her own leadership style to build rapport and establish trust with others who may define success differently
• Avoid over-collaborating, but have the wisdom to know what requires closer oversight, discussion, and shared decision making

If leaders are responsible for equipping others to succeed on the job, trial and error just isn’t good enough. For example, when a leader tells his team, “We’re getting complacent and need more innovative ideas, so I want to encourage more debate at our weekly meetings,” he needs to recognize the hidden curriculum in this request. Encouraging debate can trigger defensiveness, which inadvertently shifts people into “advocacy mode”: an unconscious effort to prove a point, which inhibits listening, mental flexibility, and learning. When this happens, the capacity to stay curious, ask questions, and make connections among previously unconnected things is lost, and the intended result of the debate collapses.

Despite the complexities of such situations, the hidden curriculum of work can be identified and understood. What’s more, I believe that one of the most significant competitive advantages for organizations is a leadership group — and ultimately a workforce — that has the capacity to recognize the hidden curriculum of work and take deliberate steps to manage it. Considering this, the urgent questions for any employee are: Do you know your own hidden curriculum of work, and are you navigating it with focused attention? If you are a manager, do you know the pitfalls and demands of those who report to you, and are you taking proactive steps to equip them to address them?

Unfortunately, as “do more with less” has become the corporate world’s mantra, the rush to oversimplify distracts from these questions and the nuanced answers they bring. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the most common barriers (pdf) in advancing to and succeeding in a senior leadership role is an inability to switch from task execution (focusing on the tactical side of delivering work) to big-picture, strategic thinking (the ability to know what’s important, why it matters, and how to navigate the uncertainties in between).

Said another way, a valuable strength is the ability to shift from just getting the job done to actively observing and navigating the hidden side of work. Although there are no shortcuts to going beyond the job description, the next installment in this series will outline practical strategies to achieve this ability.

Jesse Sostrin

Jesse Sostrin is a director at PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence. He is the author of The Manager’s Dilemma (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.

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