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Job, Career or Calling? Creating an Environment Where Everyone is Considered.

Holly Duckworth, PhD, co-founder of Sherpa Sustainability Institute, had a chance to chat with Amy Wrzesniewski about her research on Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People's Relations to Their Work. Dr. Wrzesniewski has found that how employees pursue their relationship to work (as a job, a career, or a calling) is a predictor to many performance factors and may be stable over time. Leaders who consider their team members' individual relationship to work may create cultures and work environments that allow everyone to thrive.

Here’s an excerpt, but please listen to the whole podcast.

Holly: Dr. Wrzesniewski, why did you study the factors you studied? What drew you to this research?

Amy: At that time that we did this research there was not a whole lot in this area. It was an area that I was interested in exploring but a lot of what was out there had to do more with understanding job satisfaction or understanding work commitment or job involvement. They were primarily focused on how strong someone's connections with the domain of work. Which to me is very different question from: “what was the nature of the attachment about work?” Was it a source of a paycheck, something more of identity, or their position in the field that they were in or in the in the organization or occupation, or did it have to do with something else entirely?

Part of my interest in research has been to think about how what does it mean to understand the experience of work. For people in the field of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, this may be less of a focus for research than management or executive experiences. I've done work with very different kinds of samples and populations to keep a strong focus in the area of people who labor not in the C suite of the organizations.

Holly: So what did you find going into this research?

Amy: So the first big surprise was how unambiguous people were in their response patterns, in terms of lining up much more with one of these orientations than with the other two. Then, it was surprising to us to see the same patterns regardless of the occupation that someone was in. The relationships between their orientation and their satisfaction with their work, with their life, their engagement with the job, absenteeism, these kinds of things were consistent across the samples. It helped to open a conversation in the field. People's experience of the work that they do is not a function of the design of the job that they're in. The exact same job, with the exact same job description, done in the same organization, at the same level of income, and so on, could produce such different experiences. And the people who are doing different jobs, have different relationships to the work matter. And so, this felt like it was an important and early answer…that yes, in fact, it really does matter and that there's maybe far more variance than we had assumed in our conceptions of what it is that creates a job that someone feels more or less of passionately about.

Holly: Is that resilient over time? Do you see people shifting in and out across different times of their life? Or, once I’m a calling person I'm always calling person?

Amy: This is a wonderful question and I have a few thoughts on this. I've done research that has looked at people over the period of a year in a highly volatile time in their employment history. So, they lost the job and they're attempting to find re-employment. What we find that in those situations, where you would expect movement, is that they're very stable during this time. We have begun a project looking at data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study which tracks something like 10,000 high school graduates who finish school in 1957, who are still being tracked up to 2011. And what we find is orientations are consistent over that entire time period, even if they're changing jobs.

Holly: So what should organizations do about your findings? How does this become operationalized in a business?

Amy: This is a question I’ve received for a long time. A typical response is…this is fabulous. We can use these measures to identify people who have Calling Orientation and we will just hire them because they're happier. They're better performers. They're more engaged. They work more. They are less absent, and so on and so forth. And the argument that I would always make is that these orientations are about the relationship between the individual and the work that they're doing. Both of these forces are in play. You select on something that you're hoping will be stable in the individual and then just assume that they'll come in and they'll see this work as a calling and life will be great. And that in fact really is not where the story ends. One of the things I would argue that we know is that organizations are sadly great at extinguishing or killing a Calling orientation!

I'm working on data looking at people who went into nursing. These are registered nurses from a variety of hospitals. And what we find is that they initially report very much having a Calling Orientation. But, a surprising proportion of them report that at this point they see the work much more as just a Job or as a Career, where their primary orientation toward the work is not about doing this work because they feel that it is in and of itself a calling to be caring for patients. This ought to disturb us and it ought to concern us. While then digging more into the finding, what I found was that for many of them they went into this work because they felt it was a calling and then found that the way that the job was structured by the organization…it was impossible for them to engage in meaningful patient care and instead they were just trying to prevent disasters from happening on their shifts. It became easier psychologically, over time, to begin to think about the work in a different way. They were frustrated in their desire to experiences work as a calling because of things that the organization was doing.

So, I don't think it's a selection issue. I think it's an issue of how to create an environment in the organization where you have managers who understand why their employees are there. Are they there because they see the work that they're doing as a calling? Or because they see this primarily as a career, in which case they're going to have their eyes out for opportunities to get on high profile projects and be on a promotion track? Or, are they there because they see the work as his job and it's primarily about making an income so they can support their life and family and community and whatever is their primary interest outside of the work? And rather than thinking about it as being a conversion project…to have everybody to have a Calling Orientation, what I think is that organizations should strive for how to create a culture and a management system where you are helping to facilitate people's ability to find the kind of meaning they are seeking in their work. If they see work as a calling that they are given opportunities to engage in tasks and relationships and ways of working that really facilitate what it is that they feel called to do in that work. And that if they see the work as a career, that they're being mentored and thought of for promotion opportunities. That would reinforce and would help them realize that orientation toward the work they do.

Holly: Thank you. Thank you Dr. Wrzesniewski

Note: Interview transcript has been edited for brevity.