Years ago my ageing dentist explained that his life has been so much easier and enjoyable because he never had any option in front of him other than teeth. His folks wanted him to be a dentist. He didn’t ponder a more exciting career as a movie star or Australian Idol contestant. Nope, it was teeth today and teeth tomorrow with a bit of gum work on the side.
Whilst I didn’t appreciate it at the time, he was describing role clarity. In particular, the job of a dentist—whilst it requires a high degree of skill—is more operational and predictable than, say, a manager in an organisation where their role is never quite defined, the workplace keeps changing, and the nature of their work can ambiguous or even partly fulfilled by another role.
Who do you think is going to enjoy their job more? On the one hand, the dentist has predictability and certainty. They know the value of their skills and can apply them with confidence. But if they imagine a bit more adventure and variety, they could find the job is designed a bit too tight, like braces.
In contrast, the manager with an ever-changing role may experience frustration and disengagement with the ever-changing landscape. If they crave some stability and enough time to deliver a meaningful initiative, the constant change could wear them down.
Effective job design does not have to be one extreme or the other. You can be a dentist who can have more variety in their day—they also whiten your teeth after all…
You can also have a dynamic role with enough stability and certainty to enable motivation and meaning.
Job design is essentially how a job has been set up in terms of associated tasks, levels of freedom and responsibility, how performance is measured, and the skills needed to perform effectively.
Experts on job design, Greg Oldman and Richard Hackman, have identified some core components to job design that are useful. Lucky for us that their roles were designed so well that they produced these five factors for us to measure and execute in workplaces:
Task identity: Allowing individuals to identify with their role by allowing them to participate in a complete whole, identifiable, and visible piece of work from start to finish.
Task significance: How effective performance of the job impacts the well-being of others, thus deriving meaning and satisfaction.
Skill variety: The diversity of capabilities and competencies required to effectively perform the role so that it isn’t just astatic, repeated task, like cleaning someone’s teeth over and over.
Feedback: Whether the individual is given clear and direct information about their performance. This can be as simple as a customer showing appreciation or a manager acknowledging their success.
Autonomy: The amount of freedom and discretion in how one performs aspects of their job. Individuals often differ on how much autonomy they need but in general, most individuals dislike being constrained, overruled, and closely monitored.
Oldman and Hackman explain that, when well-executed, these five characteristics foster a more meaningful connection between an individual and their role, and as a result individuals are more productive and satisfied.
Roles that are effectively designed to such principles ultimately bring simplicity and clarity for individuals. That is, when individuals feel the role is clear and suits their needs, there is a sense off it with the role. Individuals know their value and purpose even in times of uncertainty as well as in situations where the job has limited variety.
Job design is typically viewed as something we can control and change because it relates to the nature of work itself rather than trying to target leadership and cultural practices, which can be a longer-term investment that is difficult to predict.
However, when applied to individuals, teams and workplaces as a whole, this can have the benefit of shifting culture through the design of work. Job design practices can examine the broader team function and the roles within as well as how the organisation is designed to facilitate a culture that leads to open, collaborative, and adaptative workplaces.
On the Simplify app, there are resources to help you simplify job design and ultimately improve the performance and wellbeing of your workforce.
Knight, C.,Parker, S. (2019). How work redesign interventions affect performance: An evidence-based model from a systematic review. Human Relations. doi:10.1177/0018726719865604
Pouliakas, K.& Russo, G. (2015). Heterogeneity of Skill Needs and Job Complexity: Evidence from the OCED PIAAC Survey. IZA Discussion Papers. Bonn,Germany.
Grant, A.,Fried, Y., & Juillerat, T. (2011). Work matters: Job design in classic and contemporary perspectives. APA Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 1. doi: 10.1037/12169-013