Help Your Best People Do a Better Job

Every leader experiences it. You give clear guidance, yet avoid micromanaging. You provide regular and encouraging feedback. You grow hoarse from doling out pep talks. But nothing works. Your team just isn't performing the way you know they can—no matter how much support you give them.

When saying "good job" doesn't work, help your people create a good job.

Amy Wrzesniewski at the Yale School of Management has been studying "job crafting" for more than a decade. She defines job crafting as a naturally occurring phenomenon in which employees treat their jobs as a collection of tasks that can be molded and reorganized to fit their individual strengths, passions, and motives better. The accountant who makes his job less repetitive by creating a new method for filing taxes and the engineer who acquires more social contact by regularly offering to help her team members are both crafting their jobs.

Employees craft their jobs whether managers want them to or not, and in most cases, job crafting results in a significantly more engaged employee. The down side is that disillusioned employees can craft their jobs to do as little as possible without getting fired. Another potential pitfall: Even if employees honestly want to craft their jobs for the benefit of their team and their organization, many don't know how to do it effectively.

Fortunately, Wrzesniewski, along with Justin Berg at the Wharton School of Business and Jane Dutton of the University of Michigan, have developed a tool called the Job Crafting Exercise. The tool instructs employees to list their current job tasks and then their strengths—what the employee is good at doing; his or her passions—what types of tasks the employee enjoys doing; and motives—what outcomes the employee wishes to achieve from the work, such as pay or recognition. Employees then cluster those strengths, passions, and motives with specific job tasks. These clusters become the new self-defined roles of their job. The result is a tested technique for organizations to reinvigorate their workforce.

Here are four steps for engaging your team with job crafting:

1. Clarify Objectives.

Before allowing employees to begin the Job Crafting Exercise, it's vital for managers to state clearly the outcomes an employee's job needs to produce. After all, the exercise is futile if employees become engaged in jobs that fail to produce the desired results.

2. Don't Interfere.

"Managers have to let go of the prison-guard tendency," Wrzesniewski says. As long as you've properly clarified the job's required outcomes and provided adequate reasoning for why these objectives are necessary, you must let your people go through the exercise on their own. That's what separates job crafting from the more traditional technique of "job design," in which managers or HR departments design an employee's job for them.

Berg also emphasizes that employees don't actually eliminate any of their job tasks. They simply reorganize those tasks in a way that is more personally satisfying.

3. Offer Support.

Once employees complete the exercise, managers should sit down with them to discuss how they can help the employees put their new job design into action. This isn't a managerial sign-off ritual as much as it is a short working session to make sure that both manager and employee are working toward the same ends. It's also a learning opportunity for the manager. Jane Dutton points out that one of the bonuses of job crafting is that management often learns about more effective ways of working that they can apply to other areas of the organization.

4. Facilitate Task-Trading.

"In a team environment," Wrzesniewski says "it's often beneficial for employees to do a little task-swapping." Inevitably, the Job Crafting Exercise will reveal necessary tasks an employee doesn't enjoy. But if that task is essential to the team and to the organization, someone must do it. In most cases, however, it doesn't matter who exactly does it. So a manager can gather her team together after they've each completed their individual job crafting exercises and allow them to trade tasks with one another. For example, some employees might like more social tasks, such as making phone calls or attending meetings, while others love digging into more solitary problem-solving work. Because the manager will be facilitating this little swap meet, she can veto any potentially detrimental trades.

Disengagement happens, and poor management isn't always the cause. The fact is that being an inspirational leader and an excellent coach aren't always enough. Staving off what Wrzesniewski calls "the absolute nightmare of managing people who have basically quit but still show up for work" sometimes requires a change in the job more than it requires a change in the manager.