Yale Bulletin and Calendar

October 26, 2007|Volume 36, Number 8















Amy Wrzesniewski

Working for a living: Scholar explores difference between ‘callings’ and ‘jobs’

This article originally appeared in Q1, the first issue of a new publication, Q(n), published by the Yale School of Management (SOM). The publication can be found online at http://qn.som.yale.edu.

People spend one-third of their waking lives at work. For some, work is about collecting a paycheck. For others, it’s about making the world a better place. In this interview, Amy Wrzesniewski, associate professor of organizational behavior at Yale SOM, discusses her research to understand how people experience and make meaning of work.

What made you want to study how people experience work?

This area is interesting to me because it sheds light on the huge range in meaning that people can get out of the work that they do — regardless of what that work is. Part of what I have found evidence of is that the kind of work that people do is not as important as the frame that they put on it. I’ve studied surgeons who have a “Job” orientation — the work is a paycheck and not much else. I’ve studied people who scrub toilets for whom it is a “Calling” and they feel the work is an end in itself and that it makes the world a better place in tangible ways. I think that degree of variance in the kind of work people do and how it is that they experience that work is a puzzle that is well worth understanding.

You touched on two of the three ways that people frame their work in your research — as a “Job” and as a “Calling.” The other is as a “Career.” Explain how someone with each of these orientations experiences work.

People with a “Job” orientation tend to see the work as a means to a financial end so they can support their life outside of work. They tend not to seek or receive many other kinds of rewards for the work besides that, so the work is in essence an exchange relationship with the organization. And that can be a very meaningful thing in someone’s life. A person may believe that their identity is about supporting their family, putting their kids through school, and so, yes, their work is a Job to them, but it is incredibly important compared to someone who has a job to cover their gas bill and doesn’t care about it.

In a Career orientation, the primary focus is on scaling an occupational ladder. These are folks who are looking to move up, get ahead, get higher profile assignments, gain more authority, power, prestige and so on.

People who have a Calling orientation feel that work is a fulfilling, meaningful, enjoyable end in itself. These are the people who, if they hit the lottery tomorrow, would quite seriously say that they would somehow keep a hand in doing this work. They also tend to see the work, regardless of the kind of work it is, as making the world a better place and having an impact on the wider society.

Callings are often associated with occupations that are seen as selfless or noble, but that is not supported in your research.

It’s easy to think about a Calling orientation with respect to certain jobs, for example, people in the caring professions, like doctors and nurses. But what has been interesting in the data that I’ve collected in different studies is that you find Callings among a range of occupations. For example, think of laborers, administrative assistants, accountants — work that serves a very necessary function in society. If you said, “What are the prototypical kinds of Calling occupations out there,” these occupations are not going to be at the top of anybody’s list — yet, I find that some in these occupations see them as Callings. There are people in any occupation who see the work as a Job, a Career or a Calling.

Do people experience work as a Job or a Career because they just haven’t found their Calling?

That is a great question and I’m working on a paper right now that tackles this. Philosophy and religion are the two big traditions that have written about Callings through time from the ancient Greeks on through St. Paul to the current day. There’s been a debate over whether everyone has a Calling and it is just a matter of finding it, versus the idea that it is up to the person to make whatever the work is a Calling. Whether you believe that it is out there to be found or that you have to make it work with what you have really orients your activity quite differently.

In the work literature, there is this fairly strong assumption that the job is the job is the job. But what I have found is that even in highly prescribed jobs with very low autonomy, very low power and control, people actually change a lot about what they do in the job and how they do the job according to their orientation toward the work. So it’s not just an issue of finding the right fit, there’s this issue of creating the right fit.

Is there a relationship between work orientation and job satisfaction?

Going in, I expected that people who saw their work as a Calling would be more satisfied, those with Jobs would be the least satisfied — because again, it’s not about the job for them, it’s about the income — and that those with Careers would be somewhere in the middle. Surprisingly, those with Jobs and Careers look very much like each other and those with Callings look different than the other two groups on almost every variable around satisfaction, engagement, motivation and so forth. Calling people are more satisfied with their work and their life, they are marginally more satisfied with their health, and they are more likely to work more hours at their jobs on a voluntary basis and miss less work.

They look like workaholics.

They could look like workaholics. But you can make an argument that someone with a Career orientation does these same things to get ahead. Someone with a Calling orientation does these things because work is like play for them. It’s so much fun that they would be doing this anyway. So the reasons are very different.

With those characteristics, companies might like to hire more Calling-oriented people.

I’ve had a lot of organizations come to me and say that they would love for me to help them develop a measure so they can only hire people who have a Calling orientation. I can see how they could get there. People with a Calling orientation are happy; they work more; they are less likely to turn over. The early going also indicates that there are positive performance effects. But I think what those organizations don’t understand is that work orientation is only half of the equation. If you’re an awful organization with terrible procedures in place and the way the work is structured doesn’t make any sense, you can kill any Calling orientation over time.

I think people sometimes imagine that because I do this research that I want everyone to find their Calling and to see their work as a Calling no matter if they are scrubbing toilets or running the company. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world and we’d all just whistle while we worked? I actually don’t feel that way at all.

Why? What is the downside of having a Calling?

It’s a very dangerous normative slope to slide down if you assume that everyone ought to have a Calling. If you imagine a world in which everyone has a Calling orientation to work, you have to ask: What then happens to civic society, religious society, hobbies and families? If you take it to the extreme, I think it raises serious questions about where it is that people are investing their time and energy, and where is it that they are not.

What does your research mean for ­managers?

The answer is a hard one for managers because what my work suggests is that people are working for wildly different reasons regardless of the work they do or their salary or their education. There is compelling value to organizations to understand why their employees are there and to be as in-touch with that as possible. It gives a huge amount of leverage and opportunities to help develop people in ways that are consistent with why it is they want to be there in the first place. It also gives a lens into turnover. If someone with a Career orientation is in an organization where there is no way for them to move up, then chances are they are going to leave. This may not be the case for someone with a Job or Calling orientation.

You co-designed and taught SOM’s new “Careers” course. How does your work fit into that?

The point of the class is to get students to think about work over the long term. Part of what we encourage them to do is think about questions like: Who are you really? What do you really want and what does that mean for the work that you are planning to do? In that context, the work orientation framework is a tool to get them thinking about the work that they want to do. If that work will be a Career, should they think about doing something that would be more of a Calling, or vice versa? It’s a challenging thing to ask, but if they are making the decision much more mindfully, then we have done our job.

Do you consider your work a Job, a Career or a Calling?

It’s absolutely a Calling. I would do this research no matter what.

— By Tabitha Wilde


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