Want the Ideal Job? Craft it Yourself

Photos from Rachel- Potter Class at Earthborn 2012. By Unskinny Boppy (2)
Photos from Rachel- Potter Class at Earthborn 2012. Courtesy of Unskinny Boppy.

There’s something strangely satisfying about a hobby where you do what you want for a few hours.  Wouldn’t it be great if your whole career was that satisfying?  Well, it’s possible, but you need to decide that your own job content the item you should craft.

There was an interesting conversation ignited in the New York Times “Workologist” section by Rob Walker.  In March the career advice column fielded a question from someone considering leaving their job several years before retirement because of excessive work-travel they found unpleasant.  Readers objected that there was not enough consideration given to whether the employee could just ask for less work travel.  In his follow-up column April 1, 2018, Walker broached the more sophisticated subject of job crafting.

Job crafting is the practice of employees identifying what parts of their job they do best and find fulfilling, then putting more of their time and effort into those activities.  Work that is difficult or unpleasant may be down-scaled, dropped, or given more support.  It is different from manager-initiated job design, as job crafting is initiated by the employee.

Significant work has been done in this area by Amy Wrzesniewski from Yale University.  Wrzesniewski and her peers have developed a formal methodology for job crafting, including an assessment of what change is desired, building-block visual tools, a before-and-after dichotomy, and a good dose of positive psychology.  You can buy a copy of the Job Crafting Exercise workbook for about US$35.

Why Job Crafting is a Good Idea

The methodology is displayed in a 2010 article in Harvard Business Review, in which the authors note:

“…employees (at all levels, in all kinds of occupations) who try job crafting often end up more engaged and satisfied with their work lives, achieve higher levels of performance in their organizations, and report greater personal resilience.”

Job crafting improves proactivity, innovativeness, adaptability, and emotional well-being.  Employers see this practice as a way of giving employees an opportunity to self-motivate and improve the likelihood they will stay.

The self-directed feature of this practice is key. Managers may have insufficient time or knowledge to figure out how to organize the work of their subordinates for the better. If employees are given the opportunity to self-manage in this way, it can allow the manager to achieve results without having to do all of the leg-work.

In a 2013 paper by Justin Berg, Jane Dutton, and Amy Wrzesniewski, Job Crafting and Meaningful Work, the authors describe job crafting as key to making work more meaningful.  The authors identify three main categories in which employees attempt to re-craft their jobs for better fit and meaningful work.  Those categories are the employee’s key motives, the leveraging of the employees’ strengths and talents, and the ability to pursue passions and topic-areas of deep interest to the employee.

What Will Your Manager Say?

It should go without saying – so let’s be blunt – that bottom-up efforts to change job content are contingent on good conversations between the employee and their manager.  There will be unpleasant work that everyone wants to avoid, and employees might self-select away from that work.  I once heard an astronaut describe how everyone on a space station is expected to take their turn emptying the toilet regardless of their rank. Because of how unpleasant the work was, it was a badge of honour that everyone took their turn, without complaining, for the benefit of the team.  This might be a bad example, however, because these employees get to be an astronaut.  You don’t hear them complaining about excessive work travel.

The Downside of Job Crafting

Because I have worked in both the labour movement and the compensation field, I know there is likely to be resistance to this practice. Let’s explore why.  To some extent organizational hierarchy is designed to keep people in their place so they will deliver the goods.  At least that’s the predominant opinion amongst management bullies and trade unionists alike, with the main disagreement being who should be in charge and how to divide the spoils.  Under that conceptual model it’s common for employees to assert they should be given less work, get promoted, and be paid more.  It’s just not feasible to say “yes” every time.

However, there is more than one model.  There is a time and a place for meaningful work, thoughtful job design, and power-sharing between employees and managers.  It is implicit that job crafting is only viable where it is possible for the employee to control the job content, and this autonomy itself may be one of the items the workplace needs to work on. In lieu of control systems and the maximization of effort, workplaces may instead pursue a mindset of growth, adaptation, and collaboration.  Indeed, those items underpin most efforts to improve workplace culture.

There are downsides to job crafting.  Yes, some requests for a change of job content run counter to the organization’s goals. Employees can also take-on more “fun” work than they expected; they get better work but just too much of it.  And for those seeking their true calling, it is possible that they will be exposed to features of their interest-area that they had previously been unaware of.  As in, be careful what you wish for, you might actually get it.

Many people want to see more of the world, wishing they could travel more.  Others like to get out to cocktail parties to strike up conversations with new people.  And if you don’t do it very often, being in lengthy meetings making important decisions can be a thrill.  But it’s also nice to get home, have deeper conversations with close friends and family, and put independent thought into simple things within your own control.

It’s a good idea to know what you want before you try to go out and get it.  You need to know yourself to be yourself, and sometimes you only figure that out by experimenting.  But if you’re lucky you will probably discover that the biggest treasure you can ever find is yourself.

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