Hate Your Job? Here's How to Reshape It

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Matthias Tunger / Corbis

Once upon a time, if you hated your job, you either quit or bit your lip. These days, a group of researchers is trumpeting a third option: shape your job so it's more fruitful than futile.

"We often get trapped into thinking about our job as a list of things to do and a list of responsibilities," says Amy Wrzesniewski, an associate professor at the Yale School of Management. "But what if you set aside that mind-set?" If you could adjust what you do, she says, "who would you start talking to, what other tasks would you take on, and who would you work with?"

To make livelihoods more lively, Wrzesniewski and her colleagues Jane Dutton and Justin Berg have developed a methodology they call job-crafting. They're working with Fortune 500 companies, smaller firms and business schools to change the way Americans think about work. The idea is to make all jobs — even mundane ones — more meaningful by empowering employees to brainstorm and implement subtle but significant workplace adjustments.

Step 1: Rethink Your Job — Creatively
"The default some people wake up to is dragging themselves to work and facing a list of things they have to do," says Wrzesniewski. So in the job-crafting process, the first step is to think about your job holistically. You first analyze how much time, energy and attention you devote to your various tasks. Then you reflect on that allocation.

Take, for example, a maintenance technician at Burt's Bees, which makes personal-care products. He was interested in process engineering, though that wasn't part of his job description. To alter the scope of his day-to-day activities, the technician asked a supervisor if he could spend some time studying an idea he had for making the firm's manufacturing procedures more energy-efficient. His ideas proved helpful, and now process engineering is part of the scope of his work.

Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity and a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says it's crucial for people to pay attention to their workday emotions. "Doing so," she says, "will help you discover which aspects of your work are most life-giving — and most life-draining."

Many of us get stuck in ruts. Berg, a Ph.D. student at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who helped develop the job-crafting methodology, says we all benefit from periodically rethinking what we do. "Even in the most constraining jobs, people have a certain amount of wiggle room," he says. "Small changes can have a real impact on life at work."

Step 2: Diagram Your Day
To lay the groundwork for change, job-crafting participants assemble diagrams detailing their workday activities. The first objective is to develop new insights about what you actually do at work. Then you can dream up fresh ways to integrate what the job-crafting exercise calls your "strengths, motives and passions" into your daily routine. You convert task lists into flexible building blocks. The end result is an "after" diagram that can serve as a map for specific changes.

Ina Lockau-Vogel, a management consultant who participated in a recent job-crafting workshop, says the exercise helped her adjust her priorities. "Before, I would spend so much time reacting to requests and focusing on urgent tasks that I never had time to address the real important issues." As part of the job-crafting process, she decided on a strategy for delegating and outsourcing more of her administrative responsibilities.

In contrast to business tomes that counsel managers to influence workers through incentives, job-crafting focuses on what employees themselves can do to re-envision and adjust what they do every day. Given that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it now takes the average job seeker more than six months to find a new position, it's crucial to make the most of the job you've got.

Step 3: Identify Job Loves And Hates
By reorienting how you think about your job, you free yourself up for new ideas about how to restructure your workday time and energy. Take an IT worker who hates dealing with technologically incompetent callers. He might enjoy teaching more than customer service. By spending more time instructing colleagues — and treating help-line callers as curious students of tech — the disgruntled IT person can make the most of his 9-to-5 position.

Dutton, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, says she has seen local auto-industry workers benefit from the job-crafting process. "They come in looking worn down, but after spending two hours on this exercise, they come away thinking about three or four things they can do differently."

"They start to recognize they have more control over their work than they realized," says Dutton, who partnered with Wrzesniewski on the original job-crafting research.

Step 4: Put Your Ideas into Action
To conclude the job-crafting process, participants list specific follow-up steps. Many plan a one-on-one meeting with a supervisor to propose new project ideas. Others connect with colleagues to talk about trading certain tasks. Berg says as long as their goals are met, many managers are happy to let employees adjust how they work.

Job-crafting isn't about revenue, per se, but juicing up employee engagement may end up beefing up the bottom line. Amid salary, job and benefit cuts, more and more workers are disgruntled. Surveys show that more than 50% aren't happy with what they do. Dutton, Berg and Wrzesniewski argue that emphasizing enjoyment can boost efficiency by lowering turnover rates and jacking up productivity. Job-crafting won't rid you of a lousy boss or a subpar salary, but it does offer some remedies for job dissatisfaction. If you can't ditch or switch a job, at least make it more likable.