Shape your work, not the other way around

Over the past year or so, I have been using the phrase ‘sharpen your own shovel, dig your own hole’ to represent a fairly important idea: to be engaged at work we have to start by engaging in our own work. And by that I mean we have to look hard at the aspects of the discipline that defines our activities, and dedicate ourselves to gaining mastery, and deepening our knowledge and technique.
In my case, as an analyst and researcher, that means that I have to focus on clear cut skills like writing, the somewhat less well-defined activities of give-and-take with fellow researchers, practitioners, technologists, and clients, and the myriad activities involved in research, like reading, collating, and tracking information. But each of us has to do make an active assessment of where our energies should be invested in our work, in order to derive personal reward from it, over and above meeting the requirements of our job.
I just stumbled upon the work of Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane E. Dutton, two researcher who coined the term ‘job crafting’ to represent a systematic approach toward shaping your work to make it a better realization of meaning and purpose.
In Managing Yourself: Turn the Job You Have into the Job You Want, they — along with doctoral candidate Justin M. Berg — summarized their research in this area. They start by making the case, indirectly, that we have to take responsibility of crafting our own work, and not expect others — especially ‘bosses’ — to do it for us:

Most job-redesign models put the onus on managers to help employees find satisfaction in their work; in reality, leaders rarely have sufficient time to devote to this process. Job crafting lets managers turn the reins over to employees, empowering them to become “job entrepreneurs.”

My argument is more fundamental: we need to take control of our work because it transcends any job. Our work comes with us when we walk out the door for a different job. And it requires a different mind-set from simply focusing on doing your job:

Job crafting requires—and ultimately engenders—a different mind-set, however: Your job comprises a set of building blocks that you can reconfigure to create more engaging and fulfilling experiences at work.

They use several case studies in the paper, and I will touch on one to demonstrate the practical aspects of job crafting. They discuss Fatima, a mid-level marketing manager who has hit the wall, and is feeling disengaged from her job and her work. Thier job crafting technique involves creating before and after ‘job diagrams’. As they describe it:

Once she has created her before diagram, this midlevel marketing manager immediately sees that she’s spending lots of time on tasks that don’t engage her passions—for instance, monitoring her team’s performance, answering questions, and directing market research—and much less on tasks that are meaningful to her.

Fatima’s Before Job Diagram

In Fatima’s after diagram, it’s easier to see how she can connect her tasks to her motives, strengths, and passions. For instance, one of her motives is to cultivate meaningful relationships and achieve personal growth. Her strengths include her one-on-one communication skills and technical savvy. And among her passions are teaching others and using and learning about new technology.

In this after diagram, the sizes of the blocks represent a better allocation of Fatima’s time, energy, and attention. The borders around groups of tasks suggest the common purpose they serve. By rearranging the shapes on the page, Fatima gains a greater appreciation for how the different elements of her job come together.”

So, the technique is based on identifying motives, strengths, and passions, uniting those with activities and ultimately collating those into roles. Here, Fatima has her baseline role of empowering her team to do their best, and her new stretch role based on her passion of learning and using new technologies, specifically social media.
The Bottom Line
The authors made the idea of ‘sharpening your own shovel’ very tangible, with a practical technique: job crafting. And the best advice is that you can — and should — do this for yourself. The authors also touch on the trickier issues of socializing a shift of job focus, making concrete recommendations:

  • Focus on building strengths that will benefit others and the organization as a whole.
  • Build trust with others that will be impacted by a shift in activities, like your manager, reports, or co-workers.
  • Align your job-crafting activities with others who are most likely to support a shifting of your work’ center of gravity.

And remember the cardinal rule: shape your own work, instead of being shaped by your job.