I once was at a thanksgiving dinner party where someone asked: “If you had 10 lives to live, in how many of them would you have kids?”
It led to a really interesting conversation about what life is for. And how our decisions about life might change fairly radically if we had lot of ‘gos’ at life and you could try on different approaches and see how they fit. But as far as anyone knows, we only have the one go. (This question also led to some very interesting differences between men and women. Try it out at your next dinner party. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed).
Anyway, perhaps an equally important question is: “If you had 10 lives to live, in how many of them would you do the job you do now?”
After all, work is where we spend the majority of our time. Once you take out sleep, it really consumes most of our hours. More time than the time we spend with our kids. More time than our hobbies.
Since work is pretty much what we do while we’re on Earth, it’s important that we connect with it somehow. Since it’s where we put the time in, it would be ideal if we could connect to it in a way that feels meaningful to us. It would be ideal if our work allowed us to play to our strengths, and feel purposeful to us.
But many of us don’t feel that way. In fact, about 80% of employees all across the world say that work is a place where they can’t be their best. They feel like work is a place they need to shut off in order to get through it. Does that mean that we should all quit our jobs and try to start over?
Enter ‘job crafting’  – an approach that seems to allow us to make small but important investments that activates our best and makes working feel more like ‘real life’.
Re-crafting the job
During the Industrial Revolution, we stopped working in our fields and small shops and we invented large organisations. These organisations allowed for scale by creating standardised, well-defined jobs, where people were told how to act. They were rewarded for acting in the way they were told, and punished for not acting the way they were told.
Ever since then, jobs could be seen fixed shells (or cells) that employees had to fit themselves into. Job descriptions were very stable across time, and what they described are the behaviours and activities that were needed to be competent in the job. The job was the consistent part of the equation and the employee was the one who had to fit into the job and do it right or be moved out of it.
Times are changing. Due to the speed of change that organizations are experiencing, organizations don’t work very well when employees just do what they are told. Nowadays, organisations need innovation and agility from employees. As organisations strive to remain relevant and adaptive to the external environment, the classic idea of a job as a stable shell is shifting.
If the world demands different outputs and behaviors from an organisation, the people in the organisations need to adapt their outputs and behaviours. The jobs have to adapt along the way. Since leaders are usually a few steps away from the day-to-day pain points of the work, and want quick reactions to production and service problems, the door has been opened for employees to take agency in influencing their job descriptions. This change prompts us to rethink who should be the author of the job description.
Traditionally, leaders in an organisation would create and describe a job, because she or he knew what needed to be accomplished and fit together with other jobs. This approach is changing. It is becoming less likely that the leaders know how the job’s behaviours and outputs will need to change in order to be effective. Experimentation and pushing at the edges of the job – crafting the job towards relevance — will be necessary for an organisation to stay relevant. It may be that the best person to recraft a job – to push at its edges, try new behaviors, and produce new outputs – is the person in the job, not a leader designing and teaching a new way to do the job.
What does this mean for the uniformity of a job across the employees who hold that job (for example, account manager or flight attendant)? We know that different employees in the same job have different strengths and interests. It’s like that job descriptions are will become less standardised and more personalised. The description of the best way to perform the tasks of a job will be based more on employees’ idiosyncratic strengths and passions, and less on ‘what used to work’. This is because the way that one employee or team best interacts with customers and produces a final product or report may be very different from how another employee or team – even when they hold the same job title.
Most important, it is not just the organisation that benefits through job crafting. When employees find personalised ways that their jobs can add more to internal and external clients, it ignites them. It builds their enthusiasm, engagement, and sense of purpose . As individuals change the boundaries of their jobs around their strengths and interests, it affects the way they define themselves as workers and as people.
What might be less obvious to us, as individual employees, is that we sometimes can craft parts our own jobs without waiting to be asked. This may be a new thought for many of us. It is so common to think about work as something that we have to do because we need the money. Many of us forget about the possibility that we can do more without being asked or paid, just because it boosts our enthusiasm.
We can adapt the way we do existing tasks, not because we were told to but because it’s more enjoyable and makes the work seem more meaningful.
Example: David Holmes, a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines, started to hate performing the pre-flight safety announcements. Sometimes he would have to rattle off the dry, memorized statement six times each day and it got to the point where he could watch himself deliver the script like he was a robot he was controlling.
Rather than put himself to sleep, he started to work on the announcement using one of his signature strengths: rapping. David starting telling passengers, “We’re going to shake things up a bit. I need a little bit of audience participation or this is not going to go over well at all.” Then, he would get them to stomp their feet and clap their hands to a beat. He told them, “I need a beat. All I need you to do is stomp and clap and I’m going to do the rest…are you with me? All right, then give me a stomp-clap-stomp-clap…”
Then, as the passengers clapped and stomped, he re-wrote the normal script using his own lyrics. For example, rather than saying, “In a few moments, the flight attendants will be passing around the cabin to offer you hot or cold drinks. Alcoholic drinks are also available at a nominal charge.” David decided to rap:
Shortly after take-off, first things first;
There’s soft drinks and coffee to quench your thirst,
But if you want another kind of drink, then just holler,
Alcoholic beverages will be four dollars,
If a Monster energy drink is your plan,
That’ll be three dollars and you get the whole can.
Watch the whole thing.
Why did David do this? It would have taken some real time and investment. After all, the airline industry is heavily regulated. There are a number of things that David needed to say, by law, or the plane gets grounded and the airline gets fined. So he needed to work hard to find some freedom within the required frame of the job. David said all the things he needed to say as part of the formal job – he just said them in a way that used his signature strengths and involved the customers. Why? David says, “I’ve had five flights today and I just can’t do the normal boring announcement again or I’m going to put myself asleep.”
When you watch this video, it’s fun to look for a few things. You can see that, at first, many of the customers don’t seem to want to get involved or even listen. They think they want to tune out and ignore David like they are used to doing. Like we are all used to doing. It is a fact that most passengers want to ignore the flight attendant and their safety announcements – so much that when the US National Transportation Safety Board released the report for The Hudson River Emergency Landing, it stated: “Most of the passengers did not pay attention to the oral preflight safety briefing or read the safety information card before the accident flight, indicating that more creative and effective methods of conveying safety information to passengers are needed.”
Being ignored was part of what made the announcements so hard for David. He found that by personalising the lyrics and getting the customers involved, they listened more and he actually could connect with them.
You’ll also see that while some passengers didn’t want to get involved at the beginning, David seemed to win them over. Not because he had to; after all, winning over customers was not part of his job. But because he was exploring a new opportunity and was about to show his skills with something he invented, he felt more enthusiasm. Emotions are infectious and enthusiasm went through the plane. Passengers could see a glitter in David’s eyes that they responded to. By the end, you will see David’s zest for his work win over the customers who were reluctant to get involved. They were smiling themselves, laughing, clapping, giving David support for bringing his skills.
McKinsey analysts who love design have brought their personal skills into the look and feel of their powerpoint presentations. Professors have brought their guitars and singing voices to light up classes they had become bored with years ago. Traffic officers have brought their dance moves to the job. These employees are thriving in jobs that others in the same role could view as boring and repetitive – that they themselves have found boring and repetitive – because they are finding ways to play to their personal strengths. In one study of what causes employees to thrive and perform better, Gretchen Spreitzer at the University of Michigan and her colleagues found that thriving employees took more initiative in the development of their own careers by seeking out opportunities to learn and grow .
Can you find the freedom within the frame of your job to use your strengths and solve organisational problems?
We can take on new tasks, even when we are not asked to, just to activate our enthusiasm.
Example: I once was working with a group of leaders. One of the participants, who we will call Charles, told us that the thing that jumped out of many of the stories about him is how he ‘lit up’ when he was meeting people and talking with them, getting to understand them.
Charles told us all a story about his career. He said he started off in sales, at the beginning of his career, and was very good at it. When he interacted with people and made a sale, he got a rush, and he felt alive. Sales was something he was very good at it and that he liked doing. He was so good he soon got a promotion: after only 18 months he was made a sales lead, with four people he sort of had to manage. Mostly, he still was a salesperson, but occasionally this role meant he did a bit of managing, but he said it didn’t get in his way too much. So Charles still really liked what he was doing and was still very good at sales, so he was promoted again two years later, to sales manager. Now, 20 people reported to him.
The good news for Charles is that he was making about three times more money than when he started; he had a nice new Mercedes. The bad news is he didn’t really like his job much anymore. He didn’t really get out into the field often, maybe only twice a week. Work wasn’t nearly as fun for him any more. He missed talking with customers, he spent the majority of his time in what he called ‘bullshit meetings’ about sales cycles, or about new product launches, or about market segmentation, or about the new organisational structure. He hired people who talked to customers, but he was rarely talking with customers. Charles told us that he was usually bored at work these days; He said that he felt like an “‘order taker’, just processing things that didn’t mean much to him, and time seemed to go by slowly and somewhat painfully.
So, he tried an experiment with his work. Each week, he decided that he would go into the field and visit one client per week. Not with the intent of selling anything, just with the intent of connecting with clients. So he would go to a supermarket and talk with the manager about what was selling, what was new, what was surprising. Or he would go to a distributor and talk with people about the trends, what was moving in bulk, what was being returned. He didn’t do this because it was part of his formal job description. And, his supervisor didn’t ask him to do this. He did this on top of all his regular deliverables.
Charles told us that he learned two things from his experiment. First, he said that he was surprised by how many other tasks in his job took on more meaning for him. For example, if he was interviewing a job candidate, he found he now had fresh stories and new examples to talk about. If Charles was meeting with a salesperson about their performance, he could identify more with the market and what they were facing, and he felt more relevant. If he was sitting in a new product meeting, he could connect the product to the trends he’d talked with people about.
Second, he learned that he made some sales. Charles told us he learned that the best way to make sales is not to try and make sales, but talk with people about the problems they are facing, just because you want to know. Talk with people about what they’re excited about, and really listen and ask questions. This ‘off the job’ investment connected Charles to the market, but ultimately he increased the share of wallet with many existing customers and he enjoyed doing it. And he got a bit of that charge, that salesperson’s buzz, when he was driving back to the office with a new order, saying to himself “Yep. I still got it!” This made him feel more enthusiastic and also allowed him to feel more meaning in his work.
Can you use your work as a platform for playing around with your strengths?
 Wrzesniewski, A & Dutton, JE (2001) Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work, Academy of Management Review, 26, 179-201. Tims, M, Derks, D, & Bakker, AB (2016) Job crafting and its relationships with person–job fit and meaningfulness: A three-wave study, Journal of Vocational Behavior, 92, 44–53; Wrzesniewski, A, LoBuglio, N, Dutton, JE, & Berg, JM (2013). Job crafting and cultivating positive meaning and identity in work. In AB Bakker (Ed), Advances in positive organizational psychology (pp. 281–302). Bingley, UK, Emerald Group Publishing Limited. Gretchen Spreitzer, Christine L Porath, Cristina B Gibson 2012. Toward human sustainability: How to enable more thriving at work. Organizational Dynamics, 41, 155—162.