Variability, industrialization and hating your job

50 years ago, Oldham and Hackman proposed the job characteristics model. It so resonates with people that it feels like common sense: Job satisfaction is driven by five factors:

Task significance: Does the work you do create meaning or impact?
Task identity: Do you feel ownership (emotionally) in the work you’re doing?
Autonomy: Do you have the freedom to make choices?
Skill variety: Is the task monotonous?
Feedback: Are you in a place where you can safely and easily get feedback and use it to improve?

If you think about your moments of flow, or the pastimes and hobbies we choose, they have all or most of these elements.

And if you think about the most boring day you’ve ever had, or the worst job you had to do, it’s likely that most of these were missing.

And yet, even though it’s easy to show that these five factors are critical in attracting and keeping skilled and talented workers, many organizations work overtime to eliminate them. “I’m just doing my job” is the antithesis of what works for workers.

So why?

Because industrial systems hate variability. They work to mechanize as many steps as they can, and if forced to use a human, work hard to keep that human within very specific boundaries.

Better to have a three-hour Zoom call where everyone listens to the rules than risk having someone make a mistake, even one with no negative impact. Better to parcel out jobs to the cheapest available cog than depend on a linchpin to make a difference. And better to know in advance exactly what to expect.

The industrial system would rather settle for mediocre than suffer between moments of brilliance and occasional defects.

The solution is not surrendering to the system. It’s to realize that in a competitive marketplace, automating human performance is a shortcut to becoming a commodity. If you can automate it, so can your competitors.

Instead, we have the opportunity to do work that is unexpected, generous and original. It won’t be perfect, it won’t be the cheapest, but it will matter.