The former Cosby show actor Geoffrey Owens wants us to know there was “honor” and “dignity” in his cashier work at Trader Joe’s.
Having been on both sides of the fence—holding a “glamorous” job and an “ordinary” job—Owens urges us to reevaluate the idea that some jobs are menial or meaningless. To Owens, “There is no job that's better than another. It may pay better, it may have better benefits, it may look better on paper. But it's not better. Every job is worthwhile.”
If you spoke to Trader Joe’s employees, they would probably agree with Owens’s assessment. As part of their branding strategy, the culture of Trader Joe’s encourages out of the ordinary service to shoppers. Employees “genuinely care” about customers; simply completing job tasks is not enough.
What do you do if you find yourself in an “ordinary” job and, unlike Trader Joe’s, the corporate culture is focused solely on getting a narrowly defined job task done?
Working an “ordinary” job, your mind might fill with miserable thoughts: Three hours before my shift is over. What a meaningless job. I can’t wait to get home and veg out.
You may believe such miserable thoughts are generated by the work or the workplace culture. Owens might say you are mistaken: You have given such thoughts of victimization all the meaning they have. You can make a different meaning out of the same set of responsibilities.
Tedious thinking leads to tedious job performances. Check-out lines seem to move faster at Trader Joe’s.
Become a Difference Maker
In his book Great Work, David Sturt reports on research by Professors Jane Dutton and Amy Wrzesniewski who studied “how people in unglamorous jobs were coping with what they called ‘devalued work.’” They began with hospital janitors and found:
[A] certain subset of housekeepers didn’t see themselves as part of the janitorial staff at all. They saw themselves as part of the professional staff, as part of the healing team. And that changed everything. These people would get to know the patients and their families and would offer support in small but important ways: a box of Kleenex here, a glass of water there, or a word of encouragement. One housekeeper reported rearranging pictures on the walls of comatose patients, with the hope that a change of scenery might have some positive effect.
Dutton and Wrzesniewski adopted the term job crafting to explain what happens when employees “take their existing job expectations—or job descriptions—and expand them to suit their desire to make a difference.”
Dutton observed that an employee always has a choice of their mindset:
We often get trapped into thinking about our job as a list of things to do and a list of responsibilities. But what if you set aside that mindset? If you could adjust what you do, whom would you start talking to, what other tasks would you take on, and whom would you work with?
Any of us can feel imprisoned by the meaning we give to our work, but we can make a different choice. Rather than checking off a to-do list, we can see our work as a vehicle for making a difference. With that mindset shift, fresh possibilities emerge. Sturt explains,
Job crafters are those who do what’s expected (because it’s required) and then find a way to add something new to their work. Something that delights. Something that benefits both the giver and the receiver.
As Dutton and Wrzesniewski continued their research, they report, “Across the whole gambit of different kinds of work, we saw people altering the boundaries of their job descriptions in ways that made their jobs more meaningful.”
It turns out that a shift towards more meaning in a job pivots on seeing “the importance of other-centered activities.” According to Dutton, “[Employees] who job-craft don’t just reshape their jobs to make life better for themselves, but to serve others in some beneficial way.” Job crafters don’t wait for managerial direction:
Meaningful work typically comes from the bottom up, from employees who show initiative through job crafting to kind of put their own take on their job and find opportunities for meaning and satisfaction. Usually those opportunities involve doing things that benefit other people.
Benefiting others by finding a “grander purpose” is win-win. Employees experience more job satisfaction and employers see them as more valuable.
Any job—from engineer to paint mixer at the local hardware store—can feel tedious. And yet, any job can hold more significant meaning for us through job crafting.
Janitor or Healer?
Consider the job of a hospital custodian. The pay may be low; the job may seem menial, even undignified. Dreams of a better job and better times may arise. Job crafting provides another way to go through the day.
Sturt shares the story of Matt and Mindi who flew their critically ill 2-year-old son, McKay, to Philadelphia for life-saving surgery.
After the surgery, “it was 24-hour intensive care.” Sturt relates the days of constant interruptions the parents and child endured:
Mindi tried to comfort McKay and get him to rest. But it seemed that the minute he would finally fall asleep, someone would come in to check the incision, to force-feed medicine, or to draw blood. Sometimes one of the janitors in dark blue scrubs would disturb their peace and quiet just to empty the trash. McKay began to whimper every time he heard a knock at the door.
Then one morning, “they heard an [unusually] soft knock.” The janitor was at the door and said: “Good morning. My name is Moses, and I’m here to help you welcome the day. Can I come in?”
Matt and Mindi experienced a man holding a different mindset than other hospital employees:
Instead of rushing forward to empty the garbage can, Moses performed a very small—but significant—act: he stood at the foot of the bed and introduced himself to McKay. “Hi, I’m Moses. I’m here to make things better.” It meant a lot to Mindi because it was the first time in four days that someone besides her and Matt had spoken to McKay as a child. To everyone else, he was a patient or a project or a problem. But to Moses, McKay was a person. McKay visibly calmed down. His shoulders relaxed. His lip stopped quivering. Then Moses moved softly, gently to the side of the bed. He picked up the garbage can and emptied it into his cart.
McKay’s stay in the hospital was extended, and Moses “became a trusted friend and confidant.” He didn’t play doctor; but he “shared a lot of practical, commonsense wisdom gleaned from helping hundreds of families make it through traumatic surgery”:
When Mindi told a doctor that McKay had played for 10 minutes, the doctor might say, “Very good; let’s try for 20 minutes tomorrow.” But when she shared the same information with Moses, he would say, “So you went to the playroom, huh? Did McKay walk there by himself? That’s good! Once kids start playing, it’s not long before they get to go home.”
Moses was efficient at his primary job; but through job crafting, he experienced more meaning while improving the lives of others.
Going Beyond Constraints
In my FEE essay “Authoritarian Business Leaders Threaten Freedom,” I offer that a significant cause of employee disengagement “is a top-down organizational hierarchy whose leaders make liberal use of command and control as a management style.” In such environments, “employees come to believe that their intelligence and expertise aren’t valued.”
Yet even in the most rigid hierarchies, you will find job crafters who go beyond what their command and control managers are expecting. They refuse to play the role of a miserable victim as they go about adding value to others. The job constraints they face are a starting point, not a barrier.
Sturt shares the story of architect Frank Gehry, designer of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Gehry believes that “constraints and realities are the building blocks of great work":
The strict standards for acoustics at Disney Hall, for example, led to a unique design of the interior space. And that, in turn, led to the soaring, graceful steel exterior that surrounds it. Gehry spoke of how lost he once felt when he was asked to design a house with zero constraints. “I had a horrible time with it,” he said. “I had to look in the mirror a lot. Who am I? Why am I doing this? What is this all about?” It’s better to have some problem to work on, Gehry explained. “I think we turn those constraints into action.”
If you’re ever tempted to feel limited by the constraints of a project, remember how few elements it takes to make something great. Every color in nature comes from just red, yellow and blue—mixed together in millions of combinations. Every pop song, symphony, jingle, ditty, and aria in the Western World started with just twelve notes in the chromatic scale. Everything on the planet, including us, is made up of just 118 known chemical elements.
We probably already know steps we can take to begin to find more meaning in our work. We can take our thinking less seriously when we, as author Steven Pressfield puts it, “start producing excuses, alibis, transparent self-justifications, and a million reasons why we can’t/shouldn’t/won’t do what we know we need to do.”
We can go on imagining certain occupations and lifestyles are inherently more fulfilling or we can ignore the bad advice generated by our thinking. As you choose your next step, pause for a moment to remember how Geoffrey Owens found honor and dignity in ordinary work.