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Job Crafting — In Conversation with Rob Baker
How to job craft around personal strengths, wellbeing, organizational mission, and team success. Lessons from Snow White and her team.
I’m grateful for the bond Rob Baker and I have formed since he first reached out to me in 2018. Rob — author of Personalization at Work — is at the forefront of job crafting practice, infusing his work with empathy, innovation, and fidelity to evidence.
In this conversation, Rob and I use the Whistle While You Work scene from Disney’s 1937 Snow White movie as a springboard to bring job crafting to life… and challenge it in unprecedented ways. (Listen and/or read on to learn exactly what job crafting is.)
It’s not required, but I encourage you to watch the scene before listening to us talk about it. Find it on YouTube if a click or two on the version below doesn’t work.
By default, the audio player you can use to listen to our conversation sits at the top of this post. Below, find a text excerpt, edited for clarity and length, as well as more complete biographical info about Rob.
Excerpt: Rob Baker on Job Crafting
Bob Merberg: I’m joined by, Rob Baker, founder and “chief positive deviant” of the consultancy, Tailored Thinking. Hi Rob. I’m so grateful for the day you reached out to me. You knew I had an interest in job crafting.
Rob Baker: Thanks, Bob. You were one of the pioneers. Four or five years ago, you were writing about job crafting in a high quality way. Now, there’s a lot more coverage and interest in crafting.
Bob: True. Can you say a little bit about what job crafting is?
Rob Baker: Job crafting… it’s personalizing and shaping your work — specifically, how you act in your job, how you interact with other people, and how you think about your job…
“Tasks and activities; relationships; thoughts about work — connection to purpose or the value it provides. They’re the three elements.” — Rob Baker
I use the metaphor of a suit jacket. Think about your job like going to a shop and you buy a jacket. In some shops, you can get them to personalize your jacket to make it a better fit.
You can’t change the fabric. You can’t change the style — that’s fixed. But can you make it a better, more comfortable fit?
You can’t fundamentally reshape or change your job. It’s not designed around you. But you can make your job a better fit to your personal strengths, your passions, your interests.
Bob: I’ve been doing a series in Heigh Ho, looking at work through the prism of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Disney movie. [Catch up with the full series here.]
There’s an iconic Whistle While You Work scene. For those who don’t remember or never saw it:
Forest critters have led Snow White to a cottage. Turns out to be the seven dwarfs’, and the place is a mess. She sets about cleaning it, but also directing these animals to clean it or to help her.
The birds team up to clear the dishes. Bushy tailed animals use their tails to dust and scrub. There’s a buck whose antlers serve as a clothes rack. Chipmunks use a turtle's stomach or the bottom of its shell as a washboard… They all have responsibility in this project and they are tailoring the way they do it to meet their strengths.
There was no intended message about job crafting; it’s just a novel way to give us a springboard to talk about it. Is that fair to say, Rob?
Rob Baker: That’s a good summary.
You have a deeper message — this innate understanding we have that work is more fun, more productive, more enjoyable when we align it to our strengths.
Bob: You had asked me, and this might not relate directly to job crafting, whether Snow White had permission from the dwarfs when she launched this... I’m calling it a “project.” No, she had not been told to do it. She hadn’t met the dwarfs yet.
When is it initiative and when is it something you aren’t supposed to do, or the organization didn’t want you to do?
Rob Baker: Sharon Parker, an eminent researcher, talked about wise proactivity. When is it appropriate and positive for someone to be proactive? I’ve got my own spin on when job crafting is effective. When I’m working with organizations, [I advise looking] through three lenses:
How is this going to impact you as an individual?
How does it affect the people you’re working with?
To what extent is this in support of or in divergence from the purpose and the mission of your role or the organization?
Bob: A couple of the animals, I think a fawn and squirrels, maybe chipmunks, are cleaning dishes… I’m trying to remember if they’re licking the dishes…
Rob Baker: Licking — there’s definitely licking involved. I can confirm.
Bob: [laughing] Thank you. And she redirects them and says, “No, no, no, put them in the tub” to wash them. It could be seen as an allegory for a conflict with the organizational mission.
Rob Baker: And I think there’s another point where, for example, there are squirrels… using their tails to brush dirt away into a mouse hole. They are cleaning, but by hiding the mess.
Does that relate to job crafting? The point that I think is worth noting, and this is something that Amy Wrzesniewski (job crafting was first written about in 2001 by Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton) talked about, is that if you don’t do job crafting openly, it just happens anyway. But it happens in secret and it tends to happen in [employees’] own self-interest. Not necessarily from a selfish way. It’s unchecked, it’s unseen.
If Snow White hadn’t been in that room and just said, “Go and clean the plates,” you would’ve had on the face of it “clean” plates, and you would’ve got dust swept away, but wouldn’t have been aware of them doing it in a way that’s not optimal.
What Snow White did from a leadership perspective is autonomy supportive — giving flexibility within a framework. The framework was to clean. Some were doing it, but in a suboptimal way. She could adjust that process.
If she hadn’t been there, then individuals might have done it in a way that had a negative impact on others. This is why it’s so important to craft in the open rather than a secret or subversive way.
You can openly say, “I want you to craft all these tasks, but you need to also think about these things.” You clean using water rather than your tongue.
Applaud her leadership ability. She course corrects everyone in a very Snow White-ish way that’s not punitive.
Bob: Rob, one of the best pieces of take-home advice will be to clean with water and not with your tongue.
There was the other one you described where the squirrels are sweeping dirt under the rug. She redirects them there, too. Then they sweep it into a mouse hole, which backfires on the mouse living in that hole who comes out and is none too pleased. And there’s a chipmunk trying to clear a spider web — winding up the web. The spider comes down and is like, “Why are you destroying the work I did? I did the work. Your job crafting is undoing it!”
Rob Baker: We see that a lot within more complex organizations where the work of one might butt against the work of others.
This comes back to my point of job crafting openly. We encourage people to think about job crafting in an experimental approach with a growth mindset.
“We’re going to see if this works and if we get feedback that it is not working, then we will make a change.”
Bob: If you’re not in a leadership position, and if your leader has reservations about job crafting, is there something you can do in your own job to apply job crafting?
Rob Baker: Absolutely. Another question that I often ask: What’s one experiment you could try and make your job 1% better? Talk about small-stakes changes because they’re more likely to be sustainable and attainable.
How can you make your job more you or better by changing your tasks, growing your skills, your relationships with other people, connecting to your purpose or thinking about how you can make it healthier from a mental or physical perspective?
If the invitation and the motivation is correct or the opportunities are there, then people can craft. But it does take energy. You saw from the scene that there’s lots of energy moving around and doing things in coordination.
If no one had energy, Snow White’s task would’ve been harder to motivate the colleagues.
The same applies to the organizational perspective. If people don’t have energy, it’s very hard to craft. Crafting effectively is around changing something. And change takes energy.
See Bob’s posts about different kinds of Job Crafting (and the early research) in the Heigh Ho archive…
Bob: There was one piece of the scene you brought to my attention, Rob, where birds are arranging flowers. Does that evoke for you any thoughts about job crafting?
Rob Baker: Snow White directed the animals to clean. She didn’t talk about making it more hospitable.
The interesting thing about the birds analogy was that they were doing something they could see was value added. In organizations one of the byproducts of job crafting is innovation and adding value in potentially unexpected ways.
The birds think it’s going to be valuable. It’s going to create a nice environment for the dwarfs.
They also have a clever way of bringing the water in. They have a handkerchief filled with water they’ve collected, then poke a hole into it to water the plant. It’s innovative. So job crafting is linked to not only doing value-added tasks and activities.
Research measured the impact of job crafting around customer satisfaction. Those that tended to have higher levels of customer satisfaction ratings also tended to report higher in job crafting. It’s not causal, but potentially people crafting will go the extra mile or have the energy to provide extra customer service.
When crafting is around, it’s associated with innovation and creative problem solving within organizations. We’re permitted and able to think and do things differently in this environment. The watering of the flowers is an example. I imagine the dwarfs will be delighted with the flowers.
Bob: Exemplified throughout the scene is teamwork. Any thoughts about job crafting within teams?
Rob Baker: Job crafting and teamwork is under-explored from a research and a practical perspective.
One of the things that Google experimented with around team crafting was task swapping. They tried, “I’ve got 10 tasks (this is a simplified example). I love three of them. I’m not very good at two of them.” Other colleagues are saying, “The things you’re not very good at, I love doing so I’ll take those off your plate and we’ll swap them.”
Often we see within organizations the temptation that everyone will do a bit of everything to make it fair and balanced. If we’re doing that by just treating people exactly the same, it doesn’t always work out. Think about the animals… If you asked the turtle to use their tail to sweep up the dust, it would take a long time. But if you asked the squirrels, they can do it very quickly.
“Who’s going to do what?” The squirrels will say, “We’re up for cleaning.” You’d have a more active discussion. We find that works well for certain projects and tasks.
Bob: Are there jobs that cannot be crafted?
Rob Baker: I’ve tried to step away from assumptions about what people can and can’t do or craft. I haven’t found a setting where people, if they’ve given the right information and tools, haven’t been able to find a way to craft. Cleaners and housekeepers were some of the earlier people that we found job crafting. And I’ve seen job crafting in contact centers and with laboratory technicians and places where, on the face of it, I would make a judgment saying these individuals can’t do it.
If you create the invitation, most people will find a way. They may not change their tasks though, because they’re fixed. They might think about how they interact with their colleagues.
I wouldn’t ever say to someone, “You cannot craft.”
There are certain cultures and environments that make crafting difficult and people not want to do it because they’re tired, they’re burnt out. You get your suit jacket and you may not want to personalize it, right? You might just say, “I’m just going to wear my jacket and I’m looking forward to taking it off again at the end of the day.”
And that’s fine, but I would love everyone to know that they have the opportunity to personalize that jacket and leave it to them to think about how they can do it in their context.
Bob: Rob, how can people learn more about you or get in touch?
Rob Baker: I’m on LinkedIn and other social media. The company I founded bringing job crafting to life is called Tailored Thinking and there’s loads of information there. I’m always willing to help out if anyone’s curious about anything that’s said today.
Bob: Rob Baker, thank you.
Rob Baker: Thanks so much, Bob. I appreciate the opportunity to geek out in a wonderful way.
Enjoyed the excerpt? Bookmark this page and return to listen to the audio of the full discussion, which covers a real-life job crafting scenario, job crafting’s relevance to employee voice and to psychological safety, and more.
About Rob Baker
Rob specializes in bringing positive psychology to life within organizations. He is the Founder and “Chief Positive Deviant” of Tailored Thinking, an evidence-based positive psychology, wellbeing, and HR consultancy, which CIPD named the UK’s HR Consultancy of the Year in 2020.
Author of Personalization at Work (Heigh Ho Bookshop | Amazon), Rob is a TEDx speaker and Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and the Australian HR Institute. He is world-leading when it comes to enabling and encouraging job crafting and personalized people experience. His work, ideas, and research have been presented at academic and professional conferences around the globe.
Due to the length of this post, I’ve omitted the usual comic and gift articles. They’ll be back, along with special posts in honor of US Labor Day. Also, the interview with Rob Baker (and other Heigh Ho audio) will soon be available as a downloadable podcast. Subscribe to Heigh Ho to stay up-to-date about these and other features in the pipeline.