The following guest post is by author David Sturt, an executive Vice President for O.C. Tanner, which develops employee recognition and rewards programs.
In 2001, University of Michigan Professor Jane Dutton and a colleague, Amy Wrzesniewski from Yale began to study how people in unglamorous jobs were able to cope with what we might call “devalued work.” As their first example, they chose hospital janitors. What they learned from their studies, however, took them by such surprise that it changed the trajectory of their research for an entire decade.
As they interviewed the cleaning staff of a major Midwest hospital, they discovered a subset of hospital’s cleaners who didn’t see themselves as part of the janitorial staff at all. These individuals saw themselves as part of the professional staff and as an integral part of the healing team. That perspective changed everything for them.
They got to know patients and families, and offered support in small but important ways: A box of Kleenex here or a glass of water there. A word of encouragement. One housekeeper reported rearranging pictures on the walls of comatose patients, with the hope that the change of scenery might have some positive effect.
As their research continued, Jane and Amy coined the term “job crafting” to explain what they were seeing. Job crafting means essentially this: That people often take existing job expectations—or job descriptions—and expand them to suit their desire to make a difference. In other words, job crafters are those who do what’s expected (because it’s required) and then find a way to add something new to their work—something that benefits their team, their company, or their customer.
“We started looking at everybody from cleaners to engineers to cooks,” said Jane. “Across the whole gambit of work we saw people altering the boundaries of their job descriptions in ways that made their jobs more meaningful.”
What does meaningful mean? In contrast to motivation theory, which tends to be based on self-interest, Jane and Amy (and a growing number of psychologists) are noting that in addition to self-interest, we are very much hard-wired to connect and serve others as well.
It’s the creation of results that benefit both the “me” and the “we” that is at the heart of job crafting. Said Justin Berg, a student of Jane Dutton who helped with many of her studies, “Today’s jobs are typically bureaucratic and one-size-fits-all. Even the way we communicate jobs is boring and dry: a list of responsibilities in a job description.”
To job craft is to reframe how we relate to our job. To think about how our work affects others. To look at the larger purpose of our work and who it might benefit.
A Little Job Crafting Can Make A Big Difference
In the late 1950s, a book illustrator reframed his job into a meaningful role and, in so doing, changed the world of children’s books. At the time, “Dick and Jane” books were the standard.
In a famous 1954 Life magazine article, Why Johnny Can’t Read, John Hersey pointed out that the “Dick and Jane” books most schools depended on were boring. They had no real story—just illustrations of children and the same simple words repeated again and again.
Someone needed to break the mold. To make a difference.
That someone was an illustrator friend of William Spaulding, the director of Houghton Mifflin’s education division. William took his friend, Ted, to dinner and issued a challenge: Take 225 unique words every six year-old knows and “write me a story that first-graders can’t put down.”
Ted was a talented artist. He had already illustrated numerous children’s books, but always in the longer format of the times, and never with such constraints. He saw this as an opportunity to re-think children’s books and, thus, to reframe his job as storyteller and illustrator.
At first Ted thought he could dash off such a book in no time. But as his desire to make a significant difference took over, Ted wrestled with the list of beginner words for a year and a half. Most of the words only had one or two syllables. There weren’t many verbs. The task became a mission for Ted. He embraced the limitations of the list, but he also insisted on using what he had to work with to create something great.
“I read the list three times and almost went out of my head,” Ted said. He thought to himself, “I’ll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme, that will be my book.”
Those two words were Cat and Hat.
When Ted Geisel (now known as Dr. Seuss) published The Cat In The Hat in 1957, children’s literature was changed dramatically for the better. It was the first successful book that did not talk down to children. It had wacky illustrations, humor, sarcasm, rhythm, character development, and a story line. There was tension and resolution. The cat challenged authority. The children in the story learned a lesson. It was silly, oddball, and unexpected. Gone were the soft illustrations of Dick pulling Spot in a wagon. Instead, Ted’s book had a cat in a top hat, a know-it-all fish, and two blue-haired “Things” that made a mess of everything. It was different.
Children and parents loved it. Kids weren’t being forced to read the book; they were begging to read it. They were taking it to bed.
The book did more than make Seuss a household name; it started a revolution in early readers. It helped to promote phonics as a reading movement to replace rote memorization, and began the slow decline of those dull early readers.
Imagine the loss to the world if Ted had seen William’s challenge as just another job with unreasonable constraints to crank out; if his eyes weren’t open to new possibilities; and if he didn’t have the mindset to do a little job crafting.
To reframe one’s job is to make a mental connection with a grander purpose: Its social benefit. Its worth to society. Its potential to benefit others. Thinking of the good our work can do, beyond our daily to-do list, helps us change howwe relate to our work. Such reframing possibilities exist in practically any occupation. All it takes is a little effort to think beyond our to-do list to the difference we want to make for others.
David Sturt is the author with the O.C. Tanner Institute of the upcoming book Great Work, due from McGraw Hill in September.