Laying Bricks or Building Cathedrals

June 4, 2018 Andrew Soren

It’s become increasingly rare to find a company that doesn’t measure employee engagement. The result, which usually comes down to a combination of how loyal an employee is to their organization and their willingness to put in extra effort, has become table stakes for most HR functions as they measure success. But is employee engagement the right thing to be measuring? LRN’s research has shown that people who are inspired by their work are 27% more likely to be high performers than those who report high employee engagement alone. Colleagues who identify as inspired are not only authentically dedicated to their work; they also feel a deep sense of accountability and are fully responsible for the sustainable success of their organization. They don’t simply recommend their company or exert discretionary effort; they reason and act from a set of shared values, know what the right thing to do is in response to ethical challenges, solve hard problems in creative ways, and forge new paths to growth with grit and determination.

This kind of inspiration is only possible when we feel our work has a deep significance. It’s that sense of purpose that allows us to feel such ownership and moral obligation. So how can we help people (including ourselves) find more inspiration on the job? This is especially challenging when our job descriptions are fixed, we have goals that need to be obtained in support of a strategy we’ve had little or no say in creating and we’re evaluated based on how many widgets we make, sell or fix. Sounds like a recipe for little freedom over what we do and how we do it.

Truth is, each of us have way more control over our experience of work than we give ourselves credit for. Consider two hospital janitors: one looks at keeping a hospital clean as a dirty job, but a decent paycheck. Another sees her work as a calling, she goes out of her way to connect with patients, helps make the hospital experience bearable and tries to enrich the life of someone in a challenging spot. Both janitors are doing the same work, but in a radically different way. Scholars Justin Berg, Jane Dutton, & Amy Wrzesniewski studied hospital cleaning crews (and many other professionals) and saw these different perspectives on work reflected again and again. They discovered some consistent patterns for those who say their work as a calling compared to those who see it merely as a job. Those most inspired in their work had done three things:

  1. Prioritized what and when they did things;
  2. Focused on who they were working with;
  3. Reframed how they thought about what they did.

Berg, Dutton and Wrzesniewski called this Job Crafting and it’s something each of us can do to find more inspiration in our work.

Most jobs are built out of tasks we have to complete on a daily basis (communicating, meeting, managing, selling, creating, fixing, accounting, etc…). For many of us, even if the tasks are prescribed and required, there’s some degree of freedom we have when it comes to what we work on and when we choose to do it. As Daniel Pink points out in his recent book Whenthere’s a lot of science that can help us understand how best to get the most out of our day. To whatever degree you can, be intentional about how you prioritize and structure your time. Make space for doing more of the things you’re energized by or find important and find ways to reduce the time you spend on the opposite. What’s more, we all have a unique rhythm that guides our day and there are certain tasks that are just better done at different times. Figure out your rhythm and set your calendar accordingly.

If changing what and when you do your work feels too far outside of your control, there are still opportunities to job craft your way into inspiration. One of the most important findings from the science of well-being is that “other people matter.” Most of our days are filled by interacting with colleagues, peers, community members, and stakeholders of one kind or another. Even when we’re not working directly with someone, we’re often working in service of someone who will eventually interact with our efforts. We can choose to press the pause button and truly think about how each of the people we interact with – directly or indirectly – on a daily basis can be a catalyst for inspiration. Put yourself in their shoes and deliberately try to make their day just a little better. Be on the hunt for good news they shared and take even a moment to help them celebrate. If you see someone living a value or inspiring others, catch them doing it right by articulating what you see and why it’s important. Find ways to infuse meaning in the relationships that surround your work and you’ll enrich the experience for both you and everyone you work with.

The last element of job crafting is reframing how we think about the work we do. My colleague Dov Seidman often recounts the parable of three bricklayers. When asked what they were doing, the first answered gruffly, ‘I’m laying bricks.’ The second replied, ‘I’m putting up a wall.’ But the third said enthusiastically and with pride, ‘I’m building a cathedral.'” We can choose to see our work from many different perspectives. Every task over the course of the day is an opportunity to explore and apply how we bring our values, strengths and passions to life. If integrity is important to you, consider how the task you’re working on demonstrates you walking your talk. If creativity is a strength, explore how you can do the thing you’re doing in a new and different way. If cooking is your passion, how could each part of a project be a metaphor for putting together a meal? Each time you reframe a task into something that’s personally significant, you’ll find greater inspiration in the details.

Sometimes our work in LRN’s Advisory team sounds ethereal. We talk about creating more human companies by bringing values and purpose to life throughout every facet of a company’s governance, culture and leadership. That’s a big task that will never be accomplished with a single fix. But Job crafting is a concrete way that each of us can take responsibility for finding more inspiration in the work we do. You might not change everything about what, when, with whom, and how you think about your work, but can have a profound impact if you try. Make it an experiment and recraft something about your job this week. Keep tabs on how you feel every day and you might just walk away feeling a little more inspired.

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