According to Hayagreeva Raoa’s guest column in the October 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR), “What 17th-Century Pirates Can Teach Us About Job Design,” when designing a job, contradictory tasks often are bundled together without properly considering how “the job description will influence who applies or how the hired employee will allocate his or her time.”

Dr. Raoa, a Stanford University Graduate School of Business professor, often asks his students to write a job description for a 17th-century pirate captain. Invariably (and I’m quoting HBR liberally throughout), the students mix disparate areas of responsibility. The first is star tasks, which is strategic work such as target identification, battle command, and alliance negotiation. The second is guardian tasks, which is operational work such as allocating arms, crew discipline and conflict, and organizing care for the sick and wounded.**

When star tasks and guardian tasks are mingled, problems ensue. Candidates who can do both well are rare:
– Star tasks require risk taking and entrepreneurial inclinations
– Guardian tasks require conscientiousness and systemic effort

“A brilliant commander may have little patience for dealing with the minutiae of resource allocation,” while “a skilled administrator might dread the thought of leading men into battle.”

Given a job with conflicting tasks, people tend to focus on what’s easier and more controllable for them rather than what might be most vital; they gravitate to their comfort zone. The mission of good managers and leaders is to balance challenging employees’ comfort zones while ensuring that the challenges of the job, the skill set, and the personality of the team member are all reasonably aligned.

Easier said then done! However, awareness is the first step.

**James N. Baron and David Kreps, Strategic Human Resources; 1999