There’s a consistent theme that pops up in our programmes with leaders: ‘I want to find work that’s more meaningful.’ We want that for our clients, too.
But here’s one of the most important messages we’ve come to know, both from combing the research and learning from experience:
Meaningful work is something we make.
Research by Yale professor Dr Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues reveals that people who deem their work to be most personally meaningful are grabbing the reins and taking charge of their experience.
They control the pieces of the work that they can, branding it with their own mark in the process.
Proactively shaping a job – known as job crafting – involves “the physical and cognitive changes individuals make in the task or relational boundaries of their work” (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001, p 179).
Let’s run through the 3 types of job crafting that Wrzesniewski et al. find employees routinely undertaking: task crafting, relational crafting, and cognitive crafting.
- Task Crafting: How you set aside time for certain activities during the day, choosing to reorder, redesign or add / omit tasks from your workflow.
- Relational Crafting: How you invest in strengthening relationships with some colleagues and partners and intentionally limiting time with others.
- Cognitive Crafting: How you interpret the significance of your tasks and social ties at work and see those contributing to meaningful outcomes.
Think it’s just for cheap thrills? Think again. How employees craft their day-to-day work experience along these lines impacts their psychological well-being, sense of meaning, and levels of engagement and work performance (Wrzesniewski et al, 2013, p. 281-82).
It is worth noting that how we craft our work can cut both ways. We can craft our own suffering, repeating the same muddy patterns and fulfilling prophecies about how much this role royally sucks. Or we can craft an experience that we proudly step into each day.
What’s awesome about craftiness?
- This framing helps us appreciate that experiencing meaningful work is both an internal job and an organizational one.
- It kicks us in the arse to realize that we have more agency than we may dare to think as individual employees and organizational leaders.
- It shifts the spotlight away from a quest to grab an elusive unicorn of a dream job that single-handedly resolves our questions about meaning and purpose.
- It’s not contingent upon being in the most new-age workplace to feel connected to your work. (Though business leaders would be remiss to think that this lets them wash their hands of creating responsive and connected work environments.)
Even jobs that may seem unsexy and unskilled to some employees can be a calling to others, with a bit of crafting. Consider this recap of Wrzesniewski’s study with hospital orderly staff.
“The cleaners who see their job as a calling craft their work to make it meaningful. They see themselves as critical in healing patients, they time their work to be maximally efficient, they anticipate the needs of the doctors and the nurses in order to allow them to spend more of their time healing, and they add tasks to their assignments.” (Seligman, 2002, p. 169)
Does this mean any job could feel meaningful if you craft it enough?
Not exactly. You can’t force every job to sing to your soul if it’s not utilizing your core strengths regularly and allowing you to invest your energy into a greater good that you find worthwhile.
Your company also can’t make your job meaningful to you with any number of rah-rah happy hours or pump up speeches that just feel like lip service.
Meaningful work happens when organizations, teams and individuals take responsibility and align to make their work stand for something.
A few practical ways to amp up your work experience
Shape Your Tasks
Find places to use your strengths at work every day. (Not sure what yours are? Check out the VIA Signature Strengths Assessment.)
Excavate your routine for places to redesign, add and remove tasks that make your workflow more effective and energizing.
You might try doing your favourite tasks first in the morning. Or save your favourite project for last so that you go home uplifted. Either way, try it and choose it where you can – while still coordinating with the team and org goals.
Shape Your Relationships
Who are you interacting with most on your great days? On your epically crummy ones?
People who find work most rewarding aren’t spending any more time and brain space than they absolutely must with Dementors who deplete them.
Redistribute your quality time toward colleagues or clients that stretch and motivate you. Play with seeing each interaction as an opportunity to create an experience that might boost your day, and theirs.
Word to the wise: If you feel stuck in a chronically-toxic relationship with a boss or colleague, that’s a real place to look at redesigning or redefining your relationship and role. Or, just maybe, moving on.
Shape Your Scripts
What tapes are looping in your mind about the point of your work, day in and day out? These stories you repeat to yourself can either make you feel like you’re spinning your wheels or using your role to benefit something beyond you, however local or far-reaching.
You have the ability to notice – and remind yourself – of the linkage between your efforts and contributions.
For leaders of orgs and teams . . .
Job crafting is a sweet elixir. It is fuel to create more proactive cultures in which people are responsibly and creatively owning their work – in alignment with the team + org direction – while hiring, allocating projects, and managing performance.
More fundamentally, it supports the doctrine that people do better and willingly give more when they are respected as human beings.
As Wrzesniewski encourages leaders:
“If you want to signal the commitment you have to a person’s work in the organization, you celebrate and support their ownership of it first.”
When people feel empowered to craft their work, they invest more discretionary effort. They experience more flow and little wins that propel motivation. They feel valued to contribute as a person with complex ambitions and attributes, as part of a shared cause.
Seligman, M. Authentic Happiness, New York: Free Press, 2002. Print. pp 168–72
Wrzesniewski, A., & Dutton, J. E. (2001). Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 179–201
Wrzesniewski, A., LoBuglio, N., Dutton, J. E., Berg, J. M. (2013), Job Crafting and Cultivating Positive Meaning and Identity in Work, in Arnold B. Bakker (ed.) Advances in Positive Organizational Psychology (Advances in Positive Organizational Psychology, Volume 1) Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.281–302