Creative ideas come from “putting new things in old combinations and old things in new combinations,” according to organizational theorist Karl Weick. The concept of job crafting comes from that exact definition: If you take parts of your work and reconfigure it, you’ll end up with a more meaningful job to better suit your talent and interests.
Researchers in the early 2000s wanted to study how people who worked in what might be considered “devalued work” dealt with their tasks day-to-day. University of Michigan professor Jane Dutton and Amy Wrzesniewski, a student at the time, and now a professor at Yale, focused their attention on cleaners at a major Midwestern hospital and found that the workers were crafting their own jobs to change their perspective.
“We got very captivated by how even in a job that was very restrictive . . . the cleaners had tons of rooms they had to clean in a very short period of time so they have very little discretion over the number of tasks they had to get done . . . to make it more meaningful for themselves, they would do all types of little things to help the patients and the patients’ families,” says Dutton.
So, instead of viewing themselves as cleaners in meaningless jobs, these workers saw themselves as a part of the health care system, working to help patients get well. Dutton and Wrzesniewski’s research was published in 2001 and since, there’s been an explosion of job-crafting exploration and studies. A few years later, another one of Dutton’s students, Justin Berg, now an assistant professor at Stanford, did his thesis on how teachers who missed their calling incorporated their calling into their teaching and in that way, crafted their own jobs.
Berg and Dutton cocreated theJob Crafting Exercise that has now been used by dozens of companies, such as Logitech and VMware, with thousands of employees worldwide. Wharton management professor Adam Grant—also one of Dutton’s former students— teaches about the concept in his management classes and has also worked with Google’s People Analytics Team to help Googlers “customize” their jobs to make them more meaningful. According to Grant, the Googlers who participated in the exercises were rated as happier and more effective by their managers and coworkers just six weeks later.
If our learning curve basically flattens after three years, people who can’t find new meaning in their work will often either leave or just stop creating.