science of us

You Can Turn a Job You Hate Into One You Like

Photo: Giuseppe Ceschi/Getty Images

Not long ago, Kate Tolo took a walk with her co-worker during their lunch break. “I’m going to quit,” she confided in her colleague. “I hate this and I can’t do it anymore.” Tolo was working for a luxury denim company in Brooklyn, and while her job title was impressive — assistant technical designer — she wasn’t happy with her daily tasks, measuring and pinning jeans for quality assurance. But she didn’t really want to quit; she liked the company and its CEO, and she was wary of starting over somewhere else. She wanted the best of both worlds: to stay at her current job and do something she thoroughly enjoyed.

“I realized the simplest way to move forward was to change my role at my current company,” Tolo said. She asked her boss for a meeting. “He said, ‘Look, how about you submit your ideal job description?’” she recalls. She did and, eventually, she convinced him to let her take on new tasks and responsibilities, including project management, employee training sessions, and even financial meetings with the company’s CFO and CEO.

Yale researcher and professor Amy Wrzesniewski would call what Tolo did “job crafting,” her term for what happens when employees redesign their current job in a more satisfying way. Tolo changed her tasks to make the job more meaningful, but job crafting doesn’t have to be that direct. You can craft your job by simply changing the way you think about it, Wrzesniewski says, which can affect your experience. “One of the things I find exciting about job crafting is it’s not just about getting people to think about their work differently. It’s behavioral,” she told me. “Changing the way you think about a job cognitively changes the way you approach your tasks, then changes how those tasks would then unfold.”

Let’s say, for example, you have two employees who work in customer service. One employee describes the job as catering to whiny customers all day. Another describes the same job as making people lighten up — making people realize that, in the scheme of things, everything will be fine. These two people would approach the job very differently, Wrzesniewski said. They would also deal with customers very differently and likely have two completely different job experiences. “I’m fascinated by how different people can make such different meanings out of the same work,” she added. “Because it matters whether you feel like you’re dragging yourself out of your home every day versus feeling excited about having an opportunity to make a contribution somewhere.”

To understand how job crafting works, exactly, it helps to break it down into three distinct approaches. First, there’s task crafting, in which employees change the “number, type, or nature of tasks they do.” There’s also cognitive crafting, where employees change how they perceive their tasks and the meaning behind those tasks. Finally, relational crafting happens when employees change the “number, type, or intensity of relationships.” In other words, they change the style of interactions they have in their current role.

Wrzesniewski and her colleagues, including Jane Dutton at the University of Michigan and Justin Berg at Stanford University, have conducted field experiments in which they invite subjects to craft their own jobs, then compare their experiences with other workers in the same role. According to Wrzesniewski, the research suggests job crafting includes a number of benefits for both the employee and the employer, including increased happiness, better performance, and commitment to the work.

In one case, Wrzesniewski, Dutton, and Berg studied cleaning-crew workers in a hospital. When asked about their work, one group of workers described their job as not terribly satisfying or high-skilled. When asked about their tasks, this group simply repeated information that was in the job description. However, another group in the study found the same job fulfilling and deeply meaningful. The second group even described their role differently. While their main tasks included the same work as the first group, they were “ambassadors” of the hospital who helped make the experience positive for both patients and the organization itself. “This led to a very naturally redrawing of the tasks that they would do,” Wrzesniewski said. Those workers took on additional responsibilities that were important to them, like chatting with recovering patients and helping elderly visitors navigate the hospital building.

Wrzesniewski has outlined a few ways employers can encourage job crafting in the workplace. They can use performance reviews as a chance to allow employees to make changes to the job, for example. “However, the most important step is just getting comfortable with the idea that it’s okay,” Wrzesniewski said. “Some managers feel uneasy because they’re giving up control. The fact of the matter is, the horse has already left barn. Employees are doing this anyway: deviating from the job description to find meaning in the work.”  Employers also worry that giving their workers more control over their jobs will lead those workers to evade their responsibilities entirely. “When we studied this, that wasn’t at all what we found,” Wrzesniewski said.

But there are solutions for workers, too. “I would think you have to be curious about what your organization needs,” said Dara Blaine, a career counselor and coach in Los Angeles. “You have to have some sense of commitment and initiative to your job. You would need a really good understanding of your organization’s mission to be able to then align that with your personal mission.”

Understand your company’s goals. In other words, in order to ease your employer into the idea of changing your job, you have to prove there’s something in it for them, and that means asking about and being highly familiar with their goals and values, whether it’s making patients happy or growing from a small business to a multinational one. “If your secret dream is to be the company guitarist, that might not be where they need your talents,” Wrzesniewski said. “But if you can understand what the organization needs and what it’s trying to accomplish, you can contribute but in a way that’s meaningful to you.”

Understand your own goals. Even if it’s not a job you particularly like, you may be able to find something about it that would make you feel like the work you’re doing matters in some way.  “As humans we don’t have as much emotional connection to the ‘what’ as we do the ‘why,’” Blaine said. “It’s easy to get dragged down by tasks that may pull from that focus.” This means asking yourself why you might want to do the work you do in the first place. What areas of your current job could help make you feel fulfilled as an employee?

Figure out how these two things could intersect. “Look at their mission, look at yours, then look for opportunities where they align,” Blaine said. “How can you take proactive steps to generate opportunity for you in your job? How do you look at your tasks differently or think of your job differently so you can see areas of opportunity?”

Once you’ve found that intersection, crafting might be as simple as rethinking your approach to your job, like in the customer-service example, which is cognitive crafting. However, if there are different tasks or roles you’d like to take on, you may need to check with your employer first. If the changes are substantial, you may need to request a meeting with them to propose the change.

If the new version of your job does require you to give up certain responsibilities, it would be wise to have a backup plan ready for the employer. Your plan might be to hold onto those responsibilities for a while and agree to find and hire someone else, or it might be to come up with a way to delegate or automate those tasks. Whatever your solution, the key is to make the process beneficial for your employer and as seamless as possible.

There is, however, a big difference between crafting a job and simply staying at a job you hate and learning to like it. “What I wouldn’t consider a success would be crafting a job that made something hateful more tolerable,” Wrzesniewski said. “I would be sad if people stayed stuck in a bad job forever telling themselves they could craft their way to happiness.”

The line between crafting a job and tolerating a job you hate can be blurry, though, and this is why Wrzesniewski says it’s crucial to understand what kind of work you’re excited about and what kind of work you would prefer doing. Career assessments, whether taken from a formal survey or just questions you ask yourself, can help you figure that out and “identify areas where you really come alive,” Wrzesniewski says.

That said, the idea of job crafting has come in handy for workers who have no other choice. “Anecdotally, I knew people who were engaging in job crafting during the recession because there just weren’t many jobs available,” she said. “So this became a way to hang in there even though they knew as soon as the labor market opened up they would move on.”

I asked Tolo how she felt about turning a job she hated into one she actually loves. She offered a piece of real-world advice for anyone who might be in a similar situation. “Just ask. Sit down and think about what the company needs, and when you’re asking, always remember: what are you committed to in that situation? What do you want to get out of this experience?” she said. “Sitting on the fence does nothing.”

How to Turn a Job You Hate Into One You Like