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A Yale professor explains how to turn a boring job into a meaningful career

Nearly two decades ago, Yale School of Management professor Amy Wrzesniewskiand colleagues conducted a now well-known study on how people find meaning in their work.

The study, which Wrzesniewski described in a recent talk at Google, focused on a cleaning crew at a university hospital, and the different ways individual employees experienced their work.

Of the 28 employees the researchers interviewed, some felt about their jobs the way you might expect — they completed the responsibilities required of them, but didn’t find the work especially satisfying and were there mainly for the money.

Others, however, said they found their work highly meaningful. When they described their daily routines, they mentioned some behaviours that weren’t listed in their job descriptions, like spending time with patients who seemed upset and walking visitors back to their cars (a behaviour for which they could have gotten fired).

The researchers realised there was a fundamental difference between the way those two sets of employees approached their work. The first group completed the responsibilities required of them and interacted with people only as much as was necessary.

The second group, however, engaged in what Wrzesniewski came to call “job crafting.” In other words, these employees moulded their jobs to become more meaningful by adding extra tasks and interactions to their day, and also by changing their perception of their role at the hospital.

In subsequent studies, Wrzesniewski said she and colleagues assigned certain groups of employees at different workplaces to engage in job crafting and found that they were happier and performed better than their coworkers who didn’t go through this process. That suggests that job crafting can be beneficial not just for the individual employee, but also for the organisation as a whole.

When I spoke with Wrzesniewski, she said job crafting can be useful for people “in search of work that feels a little bit more meaningful.” Job crafting, she said, can transform employees from passive consumers to coauthors of their work experience.

Instead of waiting for their boss to assign them a new project or role that allows them to make a tangible impact on the world, they can ask themselves, “What can I do to the job right now to make that work more meaningful?”

Pottery makingShutterstockYou can mould the job you have into the job you want.

I asked Wrzesniewskiwhether job crafting was always advisable, or whether in some cases it made more sense to simply switch jobs. She told me that job crafting should almost always be the first step when you’re not satisfied with your work, because it can have one of two positive outcomes.

On the one hand, you could realise that your current job really can be meaningful and decide to stay put. On the other hand, you could find aspects of the job you love, and realise that there’s another job that would allow you to do those things all the time.

Wrzesniewski’s research is supported by other theories and studies on finding meaning in work. Recently, researchers at the University of Michigan found that people who think they can develop a passion for pretty much any job are just as satisfied as people who think they need to find a job that suits their personal passion.

As Jon Jachimowicz and Sam McNerney pointed out in a Washington Post article last month, we need to move away from a black-and-white concept of passion for work. Working adults, they write, aren’t either happy or miserable depending on whether their job allows them to pursue their pre-established passion. Instead, you can work with the present circumstances to create a job or a career that’s meaningful and fulfilling — even if it’s not the ideal one you imagined.

Perhaps the best summary of the motives for job crafting comes from one of the cleaning staffers in Wrzesniewski’s original study, who Wrzesniewski quoted in her Google talk. When the researchers asked the cleaning staffer why she went out of her way to make the patients happy, even though that wasn’t required of her, she told them, “That’s not part of my job, but that’s part of me.”

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