In the New York Times on Sunday I wrote about our growing need for purpose at work. We are looking for volunteering and other external activities to supplement work that we find lacks meaning but the real solution is to redesign work to make it fit our personal need for meaning.
Pioneering psychologists like Amy Wrzesniewski, an associate professor at Yale, and Jane E. Dutton, a professor at the University of Michigan have been studying the nature of meaning at work for over a decade now. Their work is enabling us to begin to understand how we can take control of the meaning we experience at the office.
In studying job crafting, the process of redesigning a job to boost meaning, they found that people could increase their sense of purpose by adjusting their tasks, relationships and approach to their work. These are all actions we can take in just about any job. They don't require re-writing your job description.
Here are the concrete examples of how I have personally crafted my job over time to maximize meaning. They fall into nine categories that were identified by Dutton and Wrzesniewski's research.
We all have tasks we need to complete but how we approach them and adjust them is often more in our control than we think.
1) Adding tasks. Mentoring students and visiting classrooms gives me a lot of purpose and pleasure. It is something I make time for as it helps me stay engaged and excited about the work of Imperative and its impact on future generations.
2) Emphasizing tasks. Writing is part of my job to build awareness for Imperative but I don't need to do it as much as I do. The truth is that I love writing and is one of my greatest sources of purpose so I emphasize it.
3) Redesigning tasks. We needed to find a way to uniquely market the first convening we did at the Taproot Foundation to build a strong bond with our peers in the community. As a way to connect with people and create a look for the event materials, I drew sketches of each attendee as the design motif and gave them each a signed copy of their portrait.
Through changing your relationships with your co-workers, clients, and others in your work environment, you can bring more purpose to your work as a whole.
4) Building relationships. It is easy at work to just focus on the task at hand but adding a little time to a call or meeting to check-in personally has made my relationships at work more meaningful.
5) Reframing relationships. I used to view members of the team solely through the lens of their current job. Over time I have moved to take more ownership of their entire career, not just their time on my team today. Their ongoing success and purpose in their career then fuels my own sense of meaning for years to come.
6) Adapting relationships. Some of my favorite relationships are with other leaders in our market that are not inside my organization. Rather than seeing them as competitors, I try to find ways for us to mentor each other and find mutual wins.
You can connect each task in your day with its purpose. It is about remembering why you are cleaning the room, conducting an audit, or designing a website.
7) Expanding perceptions. Rather than just see the impact of my work as the immediate results, I look at the cascading impact from engaging and inspiring people. The initial spark often creates new organizations and programs they create in the world.
8) Focusing perceptions. There are parts of the day that are hard and I would rather not be doing but I remind myself when I am doing them about the parts I love that are coming later in the day or week.
9) Linking perceptions. Sometimes there are parts of my work that seem disconnected from what drives meaning for me but then I recall how they are linked to what matters. There are few things that are more meaningful to me than making someone laugh. If I had the talent, I would have loved to be a comic. But alas I don't but I still find ways to do that everyday with my team and when I am speaking at events.
These changes have taken me 20 years to develop but have made every day at work deeply full of purpose for me. It was perhaps easier for me as an entrepreneur but in talking to people from dozens of professions, it is this same process of job crafting that is used by the people who report the greatest meaning in their work.
As you look at your job, what are some ways you can change your approach to tasks, relationships and your perception to boost purpose? It will not only bring you meaning but likely propel you forward in your career.