Every job – no matter how ordinary or simple the tasks may be – is a kind of craft. Every day is an opportunity to exercise pride and elegance, quality and mastery in our work. It’s a mindset and a practice.
What is craftsmanship? First, it’s giving complete and undivided attention to each component of a job (no multi-tasking – oh my!). Second, it’s customizing and fine-tuning the daily work according to changing needs or circumstances (such as managing each customer/client differently). And third, it’s continually learning and improving upon one’s work, achieving ever higher quality outcomes or service.
When I lived in Japan, I experienced the deep pride that the Japanese take in their work. Even at McDonald’s and 7-Eleven, customers are special and treated like royalty. Every job is important, and service is a craft.
Back in the U.S.A., I find that craftsmanship has become radically scarce. Many work environments constrain the natural craftsman inside of us, stressing instead that we follow standardized rules and procedures. Despite our common rhetoric glorifying innovation, compliance is more often rewarded than rocking the boat. We fear we’ll be punished if we slow down and take more time to handle things with care, because the premium is on speed, efficiency, and productivity – and on keeping the status quo.
But craftsmanship versus productivity and the rest – need they be at odds? We’ve become accustomed to certain expectations about workload and timely turnarounds and communication. These are driven by technology rather than conscious human decisions. The question is: Are we happy and healthy as a result? What if we slow down – can we still be successful?
I argue that we can. First, we can be intentional and deliberate about how we establish expectations. Leaders can design organizations to be less like machines and more like human communities with organic and dynamic processes. Organizations-as-communities operate in a give-and-take fashion, with leaders, managers, and employees driving direction and making decisions together. Systems, culture, rules, and processes evolve and change with input from all sides. Professional service workers do this as a given, creating contracts and scopes of work in partnership with their clients. When I am in a trusting relationship with a client, the process of accomplishing the project works like a gyroscope; together, we continuously shift the balances between speed and scope, efficiency and depth, time and breadth. This way, I am given the respect and allowances I need to do my job well – as a craftsperson.
Second, we have other models to emulate. A rich cultural legacy of craftsmanship – combined with phenomenal energy and hard work – catapulted the Japanese to the top of the world economy. In the U.S., we have a long history of extremely profitable companies that treat their employees like top experts, giving them autonomy to make their jobs their own while enlisting them in a shared vision of organizational greatness. Beyond the big tech firms, Wegman’s, Costco, SAS, Zappo’s, and Southwest are some of the bigger and more well-known entities that have been modeling these values for a long time.
Finally, perhaps most importantly, craftsmanship promotes intrinsic motivation. When we are motivated intrinsically, the task is its own reward. How can performing a task provide its own reward? Usually, by focusing our full attention on it, by figuring out how to do it as well as we can. A strong body of research shows that, in most cases, when are intrinsically motivated to do something, we perform much better than if we merely do it for pay. Not only do we become better performers, we become more creative, more innovative, and more dedicated and engaged with our work. In short, we become happier. Happier employees make happy customers. Happy customers bring more customers. Lots of customers make a business thrive.
We are deeply motivated by our desire to contribute something to the world, to make a difference, to help others. We are also deeply motivated to own our lives, to be empowered and in control. In short, to craft our lives.
Let’s not relegate this drive to life spaces outside the office. Let’s heed this calling and stir the inner craftsperson inside all of us. We’ll all feel a lot better about going to work if we do.