High unemployment and an anemic economic recovery have taken a serious toll on the working American's psyche, according to Ross professor Jane Dutton. A mere 45 percent of employed Americans are satisfied with their jobs today, she says. By contrast, 60 percent were satisfied in 1987.
"In my experience as a business professor and as a consultant, I see people dying in work organizations," Dutton says. "Not physically, but mentally and emotionally."
It's an insidious problem not only for workers who feel trapped in undesirable positions, but for managers seeking to engage staff amid constrained budgets. So Dutton and two colleagues in the field of Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) have created a bottom-up solution they call "job crafting." The tool helps employees define their roles and daily tasks themselves, according to personal strengths, desires, and how they best fit into an organization. It's a physical, visual exercise in which people map their current position and outline a more ideal path toward satisfaction.
"Job crafting creates some oxygen for employees to see there are things they can do every day that are going to make a difference in terms of their motivation and engagement in their work," says Dutton, the Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration and Psychology at Ross.
Job-crafting goals and outcomes can be concrete, such as changing one's daily tasks. Or they can be abstract, such as changing the way one thinks about a job. On an individual level, the point is to take more control of one's work destiny and increase overall satisfaction. For an organization, the exercise can generate a new source of motivated innovators. Dutton developed the job crafting tool with Justin Berg of the Wharton School of Business and Amy Wrzesniewski of the Yale School of Management.
Job crafting is something any worker can do at any time, but the value in the tool is more pronounced today than ever. Disenchanted workers increasingly are holding onto jobs because they feel they have to, Dutton says. At the same time, companies are forced to make do with less. Job crafting is a method to transform employees into innovators, and tap resources previously unknown to management. The relatively low cost of the exercise kit hardly breaks the budget.
"If employees have the freedom to adjust their work to the changing needs of the customer, the whole organization will be more adaptive," Dutton says. "There is too much emphasis on what management knows. At high-performing organizations, everyone is empowered to learn. So I think job crafting is a way for the wisdom of employees in all parts of the organization to be used for the good of the whole."
The Craft Itself
Job crafting is something people have been doing — often without realizing it — for a long time, Dutton says. She first identified the phenomenon while conducting a study on hospital cleaners. Workers perceived their role as caring for patients, and surprised researchers by finding ways to do so even though caregiving wasn't part of the job description.
That sparked a line of research that revealed people were job crafting across professions. And Dutton, Berg, and Wrzesniewki discovered the process was not accounted for in management theory.
From that, they developed the job-crafting tool — a notebook with stickers and questions that divides the process into steps.
"It's intentionally designed to be playful because what you're trying to do is activate the part of the brain that has more ingenuity and creativity in it," Dutton says. "It really puts the reins in people's hands with some good psychology behind them."
Through case studies and company visits, Dutton and her colleagues compiled anecdotal evidence regarding benefits for companies. For one, job crafting better aligns the various strengths of employees to the jobs they're doing. People evolve after working in a company for a while so the initial alignment with a specific job description may have shifted.
Job crafting also helps companies retain employees, especially the best ones. If done by employees who are in constant contact with customers, the tool also can help the organization react faster to changes in the market. An open question is whether job crafting is more or less effective when introduced by management. Dutton and her colleagues are seeking the answer through ongoing research at a range of organizations.
Meanwhile, she warns both employees and management to be aware that not all job crafting is good. It's important to encourage the "right kind" of job crafting, she says.
"You can see where people craft, but then get more stressed because they take on too many different tasks and roles," Dutton says. "Or people could craft their work in ways that impose more work on others or aren't in line with the organization's goals."
Interest in job crafting is high and several companies have asked the POS staff to present workshops on the subject.
Independent consultant Ina Lockau-Vogel discovered the job-crafting tool at a POS workshop hosted at Ross. As an entrepreneur attempting to launch a new business, she found the process very practical.
"I realized I was spending way too little time on the strategic part of building my business," she says. "It was very useful for me."
A satisfied customer, she now is working on a way to help market the tool to a wider audience. It's a resource she would have liked to share with customers during her previous career as an associate at a global management consulting firm. Applications and benefits seem clear for large organizations working to stimulate sales teams and improve customer service, she says.
"It might be more powerful than putting all the pressure on them in a structure that only focuses on working harder," she notes. "This is an excellent tool for employees to find their strengths and relate them to their everyday jobs."