These are my favourite shoes.  I’ve had them for a while, and yes, I can see that they’re tatty.  They are so comfortable, so much so, that I’ve worn them through.  They weren’t always this way though.  They were inflexible when I first got them, they rubbed, and they were too tight around the widest part of my foot. Yet I wore them in until eventually they fitted, and they fitted well.  Why am I telling you about my shoes?  Because my shoe is a metaphor for a job.  Some of us at the moment might be contemplating going for promotion, or looking at applying for a new job.  One thing that often holds us back is not feeling like we fit the criteria.  This is something women do a lot – women are less likely to apply for promotion in academia (Cooper, 2019; Westoby et al, 2021), they’re less likely to apply for a job than a man if they don’t think they fit the job criteria.  (However, we should also note here structural barriers in academia as women need to have a fuller CV than men for promotion eligibility (Savigny, 2014)).

I want to flip this perspective and ask: what if we move from focusing on fitting the criteria of the job to inhabiting and shaping the job to fit you?

Obviously, job roles and promotions criteria have specific statements that outline what we are expected to achieve.  Furthermore, overwork is a key issue in academia, and there is currently huge concern about workloads within Universities.  Notwithstanding these structural considerations, individuals are empowered to take actions.  And what I want to think about here is not ‘how do I fit this role’, but ‘how can I work this role to fit me?’, ‘how can I get the best of what is?’ We can consider: how fixed is the way we do/could do our jobs?  Can we imagine doing our roles differently?  So I’m going to suggest here, that we can make these leaps to apply for new jobs and promotions, because once we are in these roles, we can begin to shape them ourselves.  Berg et al (2007) suggest that there is always scope for people to shape the role they are in, through job crafting.  They suggest there are three avenues to do this:

  1. Shifting the job boundaries by a) reducing or increasing tasks, b) adjusting the scope of the tasks, c) changing how tasks are performed.
  2. Changing our relationships or interactions with people.
  3. Changing how we perceive tasks.

Whilst we might be overworked; and our current role seems rigid, or a future position unobtainable; for Berg et al (2007) even the most constrained jobs allow for some crafting.  There is always wiggle room to create what a job means.  The formal job requirements and description never fully encompass the boundaries of that job, its meaning, and how it is defined and inhabited and ‘crafted’ by the individual in the role. This crafting takes time (remember the worn shoes!), and occurs over a number of phases (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001):

  1. Motivation to craft, where a desire to change and a sense of meaningful and beneficial modifications initiate action.
  2. Alterations: such as to the nature, type or number of tasks, relations with others, or cognition of work – this is moderated by motivation and perceived opportunities to craft.
  3. Outcomes: Berg et al, (2007), found evidence of improved resilience, achievement, fulfilment, as well as some unintended consequences, such as stress.

Job crafting then, is where an individual fits a job to their personal interests, and/or skills and knowledge.  (We can distinguish this from ‘job design’, where a specific job is created in a top-down process and people are selected that fit with the skills and knowledge it needs).  Praslova (2021) suggests that for neurodiverse employees, job crafting can be an excellent way for jobs to accommodate with spiky profiles where for different people some areas might coincide with high abilities and others with low abilities.

In Tims and Bakker’s (2010) approach to job crafting, all jobs create demands on employees, which require effort, and produce costs.  However, jobs also offer employees resources e.g. job security, career opportunities, autonomy, which allow employees to reduce demands and achieve personal growth.  The interaction between these impacts on health and motivation.  Thus employees can decide in job crafting to increase resources, and/or decrease demands.  They could also choose to increase job demands that they saw as positive challenges, such as high responsibility.

So what about your role?  Where are you now in the phases of job crafting?

  • If you are feeling motivated to job craft, what could move you to action? What kinds of conversations or actions could you take to begin to make positive changes? (also see below)
  • If you are making alterations, what is working? What other positive changes would be beneficial?  How are or could you be measuring the success of this work?
  • And if you are at the point where you are assessing the outcomes of this process: What have been the losses of this process and what are the gains? What further changes could you make to the job demands and job resources to get the role to where you want it to be?

If you have decided that you want to undertake some deliberate job crafting, here are some things to consider.  Berg et al, 2010, found that those in jobs with more autonomy tended to have greater psychological barriers to change.  They ‘settled’ for what they thought they could change rather than seeking to adjust their environment by making efforts to adjust other’s expectations and behaviours.  What if you could craft not just your job, but in the process you change people’s attitudes too?  Bearing this question in mind, make yourself two lists, ‘Work now’ and ‘Ideal work’:

Your work now:

  • What energises you and what depletes you? Think here about number of tasks, scope of tasks, kinds of tasks, interactions with others, and your own perceptions of the job.
  • What is the balance of job demands to job resources in your role? Here consider what is the balance of positive challenging job demands to negative ones?
  • What autonomy and task independence do you have to make these changes?
  • What could be the results of such changes?
  • Will you encounter resistance, and if so from where? What can you do to anticipate and mitigate this?  (you can explore research on the challenges of job crafting here)
  • What support do you need?

Ideal work:

  • Ideally, what would your work look like?
  • If everything was going the best it could, what would be the number, scope and kinds of tasks that you would be performing?
  • How would you be interacting with others?
  • What would your job demands to resources ratio look like?
  • What challenging demands would you be pursuing relative to negative demands?
  • How would you be thinking about your job?

With these reflections, you can be clearer about the gap between where you are now, and where you want to be.  This can give insights into the kinds of actions and small changes you can explore to craft the role.  (If you wanted to explore the original theory, Berg et al developed in-depth exercise, which can purchased here.)

Congratulations on completing this exercise.  You are reshaping your shoe – aka job – to fit you better.  Indeed, this can be a challenging process, and it may be that you find you wear out your existing shoes in the process, and new shoes have to be sought.  On that subject, here are my new favourite shoes – comfortable and different from before – sturdier (harder to wear through); not pink, but “men’s shoes”; and with an entirely different function.  I wear both pairs comfortably now, but for me, it took wearing through my old shoes to discover that I needed new shoes to be able to thrive.