To Be Happier at Work, Think Flexibly about Your Job—and Yourself

The benefits of “job crafting”—a practice first described by Yale SOM’s Amy Wrzesniewski 20 years ago—are well established. In a new paper, she and her co-authors find that well-being can be further enhanced by pairing a shift in your job mindset with changes in how you think about your own strengths and weaknesses.

Written by Katie Gilbert- YALE INSIGHTS

In the two decades since Amy Wrzesniewski, the Michael H. Jordan Professor of Management at Yale SOM, first studied the practice of “job crafting” (in collaboration with Jane Dutton, now professor emerita at Michigan Ross), the concept has found an eager audience. Subsequent researchers as well as the popular press have concluded that embracing the practice, in which an employee intentionally alters the design of their own professional role, can boost psychological well-being, engagement, and performance on the job.

A new paper from Wrzesniewski—along with co-authors Justin Berg at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Adam Grant at the Wharton School, and Jennifer Kurkoski and Brian Welle at Google—investigates whether these benefits can be extended even further with the adoption of what they term a “dual-growth mindset”: one that combines the job-crafting mindset with a similarly flexible approach to beliefs about the self. In other words, what might happen when people who are actively modifying fixed beliefs about their jobs invite their attitudes about themselves along for the ride?

Wrzesniewski suspected that altering job- and self-growth mindsets in tandem would yield larger gains in happiness than tweaking either in isolation. To explain why, she offers a metaphor: Imagine two poles planted in the ground, connected by a banner. One pole represents ideas about the self (especially one’s self-perceived skills, strengths, and abilities); the other, ideas about work (and its routines, tasks, and key relationships). If we can move only one pole, possibilities for new ground are limited. But once we move both, the poles can be re-planted with far more freedom.

“If what job crafting does is lift the job pole out of the ground and allow you to move it around, then moving the self pole can introduce the possibility of bigger or more dynamic changes to the design of the work,” Wrzesniewski says.

Two experiments the researchers conducted to test this hypothesis confirmed their theorizing. The results revealed that workers who learned how to alter both their job- and self-related mindsets planned bigger changes for their job designs—and subsequently experienced long-term increases in happiness, unlike the workers who had concentrated on either mindset in isolation.

“Our work suggests that to achieve sustainable gains,” the researchers write, “it may be important for individuals to believe they can change their environments as well as themselves.”

Read the study:

In two separate experiments, the researchers assigned participants to one of three growth-mindset interventions: the first focused on the self, the second on the job, and the third combined the two concepts—making them the dual-growth group.

The first experiment was conducted in a Fortune 500 tech firm, where 149 employees voluntarily attended one of three two-hour “career development” workshops, each with a different intervention. Employees were randomly assigned by workshop to one of the three interventions. The workshops were held in person, and were conducted by Wrzesniewski, Berg, and Grant. The second experiment was conducted online, using text-based versions of the same workshops, and used Amazon MTurk to recruit roughly 400 full-time employees from companies across the U.S.

Both experiments sought to capture measures of how participants’ happiness changed over time—by checking just before the workshops, a few weeks after the workshops, and six months post-workshop—though they did so in different ways. In the first experiment, the researchers opted to measure happiness using ratings offered by participants’ managers and peers at work —who were “blind” to the study condition the participant was assigned to, an approach they chose in order to circumvent the confounding effect of participants anticipating what researchers expected to observe in these measures and revising their scores accordingly.

In the second experiment, however, the researchers used a slightly different approach. “The subjective experience of happiness is also important,” they write, and so, in the second experiment, they asked participants to report on their own feelings before the workshops, four weeks afterward, and then six months later. In this experiment, the researchers also asked employees to answer questions about their self- and job-growth mindsets (to gauge their rigidity or flexibility) at each of these intervals.

In both experiments, study participants were asked to complete an exercise in which they graphically represented their attributes and skills and/or their jobs as a flexible set of building blocks. In the job-growth workshop, for example, they were asked to create a “before” diagram where they mapped the tasks and relationships that occupied their current work lives onto blocks of three sizes, depending on the time and energy they required. In an “after” diagram, they could introduce brand-new task blocks, drop task blocks, or increase or decrease the size of an existing block. To quantify the scope of the changes participants were planning for themselves, the researchers coded participants’ before-and-after diagrams, giving scores based on the degree of changes planned by participants.

The dual-growth mindset workshops, the researchers found, boosted happiness most over the long term. And there was an additional benefit: the dual-growth condition also appeared to yield the stickiest mindset change over time. In other words, participants who had been assigned to this condition were the most likely to continue exhibiting flexibility in the way they thought about the malleability of their own abilities and skills and/or their jobs.

What’s more, the researchers found that the size and ambition of changes people planned for themselves and their jobs were tied to their sustained happiness gains six months later. This indicates to Wrzesniewski that the dual-growth mindset proved stickier and yielded longer-term happiness because of the size of the steps it enabled people to tackle to bring change to their lives.

“The nature of the changes people in the dual-growth mindset group were planning were just different,” Wrzesniewski says. “That’s what we believe explains the longer-term benefits. It seems to be that mindset drives happiness through what you’re able to do because of the mindset.”

Wrzesniewski believes these findings are especially relevant to today’s workers, in large part because of the way the pandemic has transformed workplaces and, for many, where their work happens.

“Because of the pandemic, more people are working remotely now, and part of what that does is automatically loosen a lot of the strong scripts and cues that surround people in the job, what the routines are, and so on,” Wrzesniewski says. “That becomes a really rich opportunity for job crafting.”

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