There's a career technique that you may already be using, according to research by Yale School of Management organizational-behavior professor Amy Wrzesniewski. Wrzesniewski and her colleagues Justin M. Berg of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and Jane E. Dutton of the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business have been studying an exercise they call "job crafting." In essence, job crafting is redefining and reconfiguring your job on your own terms and turning into a role that better suits you. The practice allows you to "gain a greater sense of control at work," they write in "Turn the Job Your Have into the Job You Want" in this month's Harvard Business Review. "Perhaps job crafting's best feature is that it's driven by you, not your supervisor."
The authors have studied employees at all levels at organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to small nonprofits. Their most surprising finding, says Wrzesniewski, is that people take a fair amount of freedom in their jobs already -- even those in the lowest-power roles in an organization, regardless of whether they obtained sanction from their managers.
Wrzesniewski's team mapped out a more focused approach to the technique, which involves assessing, then altering at least one of three core aspects of work: tasks, relationships, and perceptions (how you think about your job). In their work, they found that job crafters often are more engaged and satisfied with their work experience, perform at higher levels, and even report increased personal resilience.
You can modify your tasks with actions such as taking on more or fewer of them or changing the way you perform them (so long as you fulfill your job description, of course). For instance, an IT director might choose to take on an additional role as IT's ambassador to the organization and raising IT's profile because he likes working with people in other functions and departments. Altering the relationships of your work experience means qualitatively or quantitatively changing your interactions with people. Perhaps an IT manager might spend time with a colleague in finance because she wants to understand the business side better, or because she enjoys collaboration.
Wrzesniewski notes that job crafting doesn't necessarily take major steps. This brings me to the third aspect of work, perception. To change this aspect of your job, you needn't take any action at all. Instead, you merely modify or even altogether reframe the way you see your work or parts of it so that it becomes more meaningful to you. In their article, the authors give the example of an R&D director who might decide to approach her work as advancing innovation and science in her field instead of just managing projects.
A key element of successful job crafting, Wrzesniewski maintains, is making sure the way you ultimately choose to reconfigure your job is in fact in line with organizational goals and mission. "It has to be done in a way consistent with the organization," she explains. "When we guide people in this exercise, it's very much along the lines of executing your job, obviously, but then making it better -- not all of a sudden doing things that aren't OK."
At a time when employee engagement and motivation are down significantly from twenty years ago, companies stand to make important strides in this area by encouraging job crafting and creating what the authors call "job entrepreneurs." From the worker's perspective, taking control of aspects of their work can help them refresh their take on their roles. "[Traditionally,] the age-old answer to a job that wasn't motivating was just to move, to get another job somewhere else," notes Wrzesniewski. "But that's much less of a possibility now for people. One of the side effects of job crafting is that is offers a way of trying to make the job new again and, as a result, reengage."