Job crafting: finding meaning in our work

An old story goes like this:

Once a traveller came across three stonemasons, all chipping away at huge blocks of stone. He asks the first one what he is doing.

‘It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? I’m cutting stone. And to be honest, I’ll be glad when this day is done, I get paid and I can go home.’

The traveller then speaks to the second man, who replies: ‘I’m cutting this stone to make it the perfect fit with all the others that have been cut. I’m not sure what they’re going to do with them but whatever it is, it should look good when it’s built. It’s hard work in this heat though – I can’t wait until it’s finishing time and I can go for a pint.’

The traveller approaches the third man who is whistling away to himself, standing back from time to time to admire his work, smiling as he wipes the sweat from his brow. ‘What are you doing?’ the traveller asks.

‘I’m building a cathedral,’ the third stonemason replies.

Professor Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues conducted an study which asked some hospital cleaning staff the same question: what are you doing? Their answers fell into similar categories to the cathedral story. Some of them described themselves by their job title and about their responsibilities in exactly the same way as their job descriptions were written. Others described themselves in their own words, speaking of themselves in terms other than their job title. One called herself a ‘healer’ because she created sterile spaces in which people could get well.

Professor Wrzesniewski states how important it is to realise that this isn’t just a bit of positive thinking: it’s about actual tangible steps that people take to do their jobs differently. One cleaner would swap around the pictures on the walls of the rooms in which comatose patients were staying in case a change in their environment might somehow spark recovery.

Professor Wrzesniewski and her colleagues call this process ‘job crafting’:

‘What employees do to redesign their own jobs in ways that foster engagement at work, job satisfaction, resilience, and thriving.’

(Berg, Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2010)

You can watch Professor Wrzesniewski’s twelve minute talk at re:Work with Google here: Job Crafting – Amy Wrzesniewski on creating meaning in your own work.

As a professional development coach, I often work with clients who want to find more meaning in their work and so we practise some job crafting together.

If a client isn’t sure whether now is the right time to change jobs, we work together to find out what they do enjoy about their current jobs and how they can do more of that whilst still supporting their organisation’s goals. Clients sometimes find that their issues are internal rather than external ones and so together we find internal solutions to those challenges. In cases whether the problems are external, we discover how the client can mitigate the issues. For some clients, this process has resulted in them finding the meaning they were looking for and deciding to stay in their current role.

Other clients will choose to move on to another role. The work that we’ve done on evaluating the positives and negatives of previous roles better equips them in their search for a new role: you could say that they use job crafting to help them pin down what they are looking for in a new job.

For clients who already feel that they are building cathedrals, job crafting can keep them on track to ensure that they continue to be engaged, committed and fulfilled in their work.

In some instances, my client is in the position of being able to encourage job crafting within his or her organisation and we’ve worked together on a plan to introduce it to the business.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder is this: what are you doing? Are you chipping away at a stone or building a cathedral?

What do you think?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’re ready to craft your work and life, email me and let’s have a conversation about how we can work together.

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