Find Joy in Any Job: How Do I Improve the Role I Have?
A lot of us are feeling unhappy and disengaged at work – and that started long before the pandemic. A big part of the problem, says Marcus Buckingham, is that we don’t take the initiative to do more of the tasks that we truly love. After identifying what most energizes and excites you about your current role or employer, you can try a host of strategies to shape your work around those things.
In this special series from HBR, we’re looking at how to find love in your work. In this episode, we explain how to shift your current role to focus on what really drives you.
IdeaCast co-host Alison Beard speaks with Marcus Buckingham, head of research on people and performance at the ADP Research Institute and author of the new book Love + Work.
ALISON BEARD: I’m Alison Beard and this is the HBR IdeaCast.
We’re doing a special series looking at how to find joy in our work. At a time when a lot of people are feeling burnt out, disengaged and unhappy in their professional lives, we’re explaining, with the help of author Marcus Buckingham, how to change our jobs for the better. We’ve already talked about the problem of disengagement and how to figure out what makes us happy. Today we’re going to discuss how to shift our jobs so we spend more time doing those things.
SPEAKER 1: I’ve had great managers that have helped to support me in doing those things that I’ve liked. And I’ve always been very vocal about saying, “Hey, I really enjoy this. Is there more opportunity for me to do this? Or is there an opportunity to do less of this? Maybe there’s a way to delegate some of those tasks.
SPEAKER 2: I approached my firm with a proposal that I focus more on delivery and supporting sales. We negotiated an agreement and a little over a year ago, I switched to a role where I have a small sales obligation instead of a quite large one and I support my colleagues and I spend more of my time really building client relationships and uncovering business development opportunities. And it is so much more fun than what I was doing before.
SPEAKER 3: Earlier in my career was when I was ready to move on and try something new and started to look at opportunities elsewhere. And went into my boss’s office and told him about this. And his response was, “We don’t want to see you go. What are you interested in doing? And let’s see if there’s a match between what you want to do and what we need done.” And it turns out there was, and we were able to set up an opportunity for me to do that. And so, I’ve tried to offer similar opportunities for folks now that I’m in a leadership capacity.
ALISON BEARD: Marcus’s book is called Love and Work. Marcus, very happy to have you back again.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Lovely to be here, Alison.
ALISON BEARD: Okay. So we have decided that we have a few red threads at our job, but a lot of other colored threads. We’ve made our loved and our loathed lists. We’ve thought a lot about what really makes us happy. So what we do about it? How do we make sure that we have more of those red threads and fewer of the other color every day?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, there’s something that you can do for yourself and then there’s something you can do with other people because obviously, work is a place in which there are other people. The first thing just for you is it begins with you changing your mindset toward your own life. So the first thing you start with is going, “Today, intentionally, what are the red threads that I’m going to find today?” Just try it. Change your relationship to your morning. You’re waking up, you’re going, “Life’s trying to show me some red threads today, where are they and how can I use them, turn them into contribution in some way?” So to begin with, it begins with intentional attention, that’s the first place to start.
Second, when you have got vividness… And we talked last time about, doesn’t matter when, who, doesn’t matter why, doesn’t matter where, it doesn’t matter how, whatever the verb is that’s on your “I love it when” note and you put that detail to it. Can you find a way to volunteer that for the benefit of the team over and above that which you’re doing? Can you find a way that, maybe, you don’t just have 20% of it that day? Can it be 50% that day? Can you find some way in which that particular set of red threads is useful for the team more than what it was before? Can you volunteer it and turn up the dial on it?
Third, can you learn some new skill or technique that takes that natural love, appetite, red-threadness and turns it into an actual contribution where the team goes, “Oh, my word, that’s useful.” So if you like communications and you aren’t actually in a marketing role, but it’s a small team and there’s an opportunity for you to think about how you can help and you just always liked that “How do we reach people and create an experience for them?” Can you learn MailChimp? Can you learn Eloqua? Can you learn particular software or tools that help you take a natural instinct or orientation of yours and turn it into an actual contribution? Don’t wait for somebody to give you permission because they can’t read your mind. Instead, can you take it upon yourself to learn something that elevates a natural love into a contribution?
The second thing, of course, is you do have, many of us anyway, a team leader and the routine and the ritual that you can and you should expect of your team leader is what I would call a check-in, which is really like doing sort of a mini Love it/Loathe it, but it’s every week. And what it sounds like is this, every week, your team leader and you are going to talk about what’s your love last week? What’s your loathe? What are your priorities this week? How can that leader help you? The best team leaders, when we run the data on this, if team leaders are checking in with their people every week, in the next three months, engagement goes up 77% and employee turnover goes down 67%. There’s really good data that shows that frequent light-touch attention between you and your team leader is massively important in terms of your contribution.
ALISON BEARD: But what if you don’t have a boss like that? I imagine many people don’t have bosses like that, in part, because I think people are strapped. You had mentioned before that nurse supervisor who has an average of 60 nurses, that’s hard.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yeah. And that’s not just one nurse supervisor, that’s the standard span. We call it the span of control, but we should really call it span of attention because that poor nurse supervisor can’t give individualized attention to what people love, what they loathe, what they’re doing every week. She can’t do it or he can’t do it. It’s too many people. Now it makes sense on a balance sheet, but it doesn’t make sense for humans.
So, the first thing is though, for a team member, it has to come from you first. And all you are really saying, all you are saying to your team leader is, “Could you talk to me for 15 minutes about the next week that’s upcoming? I want to share with you a bit about what I’m into, what my red threads are for last week.” Or however you want to say it. “What I got a kick out of last week.” If you’re not comfortable with the word love, use joy or use passion or use interest or something. And then, “Here’s what I’m focused on this week.” That’s 15 minutes. That’s 10 minutes. Maybe you have a longer conversation because something you bring up prompts a coaching moment from her or him and you got 20 minutes. Okay, all you’re asking is, “You want me to be productive this next week, right? Okay. We got 52 of these weeks, I want to talk to you each week about the next week just so that I can figure out how I can have a week that’s actually both productive and nourishing. That’s what I want, that’s what you want.”
ALISON BEARD: Can you do it under the radar without having that kind of conversation for people who do have absentee bosses or bosses that are too controlling and prescriptive?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Obviously, going back to the 73% of people who say they have the freedom to maneuver to fit their jobs better, there’s a lot of stuff that we need to do ourselves and we can do ourselves. We can identify our red threads. We can put the detail to that in terms of, “I love it when…” And we, and we alone, frankly, can put the detail to that. We can volunteer those. We can learn skills to refine and sharpen those. We can deliberately try to tilt the floor, if you like, to mix my metaphors, so that you’re doing more and more of those. You can, you do have that power.
Having said that, all the data that I’ve been aware of these last 25 years shows that you do develop best in response to a human being and often, that other human being is a team leader. So if you are working with someone who is controlling, mistrustful, you can try to go up and say, “Hey, listen, this next week, what are the priorities? How can I help? Can you run some interference for me? This is what I’m thinking about next week in terms of what I could do more of or what I could do less of.” You should try that. If you are consistently being shut down, then all of the data that I’ve seen shows that you will never be as productive or as engaged or as resilient as you could be. Your team leader, I’m afraid, is a very important part of your work ecosystem. When they’re absent-
ALISON BEARD: So need support in finding those red threads. I mean not finding them, you need support in shifting to them.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, yes. Then if you keep getting shut down, then you’ll have to make some very practical decisions about where you scavenge next. Because if you’re with someone who basically tries to shut you down, there’s just no way to sugarcoat that. And you may have to earn the money. There may be no other job for you. Although right now, and probably for the next five years, there’s going to be more choice, perhaps, than you’ve ever had. But your team leader is a critical, critical part of the way in which you get to experience joy and passion and nourishment at work. I’m sorry, the data’s unequivocal.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And so, you’ve found these red threads, you’re gathering them, you’re focusing more of your time on them, but there’s still all the other colored threads and all of that work needs to get done. So how do you stop doing stuff that you loathe but allow the organization and your team to still function?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, what’s interesting is that if you actually take the steps that we were talking about before, first of all, you pay attention to it, you understand the detail of that red thread, you start volunteering even if it’s a not in your job description, you volunteer for it, you learn skills that refine it and sharpen it. And over time, what you’ll find… I mean, I ran a company. I had 150 odd people, all different teams. And I promise you, managers want people to step into a space and do more, but they don’t read people’s minds so they don’t quite know where people are going to give you that discretionary effort. So if you are doing all the things I’m just describing, people will start going, “Ooh, that, whenever I need that, she’s the one I turn to, she’s the one I turn to, she’s the one I turn to.”
And what you’ll find is, not always, particularly if your manager is controlling and weird, but you’ll find, the world starts maneuvering you into a place where more and more and more of that very valuable thing is what people start asking you to do, which gives you power, by the way, to turn to your manager or your colleagues and go, “Listen, if you really want me to do this and this and this, then I don’t have time for this and this and this.” It doesn’t always work out that way, but if you begin to express so much value in terms of your contribution in the area of that which you love and you’ve taken your love seriously, then people will start, I promise you, any kind of moderately good team leader will start maneuvering to go, “Well, we can’t have her not do that. We need that to the Nth degree.”
It’s when you don’t take that initiative and when you don’t take your loves seriously that you sort of sit back and wait for some manager to come design the perfect job for you, that is never going to happen. But if you take that initiative, the world starts sort of maneuvering itself toward that which you love. Love is attractive, it’s a weird, magnetic sort of thing. And then, in the end, you are going to have many, many occasions where the team will start to go, “We need her to do an awful lot more of that and therefore, we’re going to have to take this off her plate.” Now-
ALISON BEARD: That’s a very optimistic view of teams and organizations because in my experience, particularly recently, I think that people have just had the work piled on and don’t feel that they have that opportunity to offload as much as they would like.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yes. So look, try that, everything I just said. It could be optimistic, but you look at the best teams, that happens a lot. So try that first. Of course, if it doesn’t actually shake out that way, then the opportunity for you exists to use your red threads to give you the nourishment that you need, because frankly, for most of us, and I know this is going to sound a little bit simplistic as I say it, but for most of us, the challenge isn’t that we don’t have enough time, it’s that we don’t have enough energy. And so your red threads are powerful because they give you energy, they nourish you.
So some people say, “Well, you should do all the things you hate first so that you’re then rewarded by doing the stuff that you love.” I actually do the opposite. There’s a bunch of stuff in my job, because I don’t love everything that I do, that I do only after I’ve started off my day, every day for me, I start off with all my red threads because they give me energy. And then, I found I can plow through the stuff that… Like I don’t like confrontation, I so don’t like confrontation. But if I’ve done a lot of stuff in the beginning of the day that actually invigorates me, I find I can almost talk to anyone about anything.
I’m often called upon to mingle. I hate mingling, it’s super stressful for me. Maybe it comes back from when I had a stammer and I couldn’t speak, but I hate it and it will never not stress me out.
So one of the things that you can do is what I can do. I love interviewing people. Well, can you look at some of the stuff that drains you through the lens of that which you love? Whenever I now have to mingle, either remotely or now in the reality of the world, I just take three people that I’m going to meet and I’ll just interview them for 20 minutes, one after another. And that’s my mingling. Doesn’t always work, but you can actually use the power of that which you love to kind of transform some of the other activities that bring you down.
ALISON BEARD: I mingle in exactly that same way and I ask so many questions that my husband often apologizes and says, “I’m sorry, she’s a journalist.”
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Just asking questions and shutting up is a really good way to get through a party.
ALISON BEARD: So, have you seen people, individuals that you’ve worked with in any kind of job move their existing role so that they have more of those red threads they’re focusing on every single day and getting rid of the other ones? Like you’ve seen this work in practice?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: All the time. When you actually put the data to this, you can track it through very simple measurements of sentiment. So you could start with a team and ask some very simple questions, which we do all the time, “Do I have a chance to use my strengths every day? Do I have a chance to do something that I love every day?” And you can see data where the person starts off and they’re at a 3.2 or a 3.3 or the team, in general, is it a 3.2 on a scale of one to five, 3.2, 3.3 on those questions.
But what I’ve seen time and time again is you fast forward three months and these numbers move really quickly. You can get teams where that’s at a 4.9 or even a 5.0 across the entire team. And it’s not like the team’s doing different work, it’s just that they’ve had the conversations where somebody went, “I lean into this, but I need help here.” Somebody else went, “I need help here, but I lean into this.” And lo and behold, the team begins to coalesce around the uniqueness of each person on it. You see it happening all the time and it happens really quickly.
ALISON BEARD: Is that for everyone on the totem pole? Can the lowest tier employee do this just as easily as a C-suite executive?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: It depends on the C-suite executive and it depends on the person lower on the totem pole. We have designed an awful lot of jobs so that the people lowest on the totem pole have less choice, they have less or to autonomy on what they’re doing. Having said that, if you look at retail, if you look at hospitals, if you look at warehouse work, if you look at manufacturing work, there has been, over the last decade or so, an increasing understanding of the need, just in order to get better quality, to have decisions being made as close to the action as possible.
What encourages me is there’s more and more realization, even just for pragmatic reasons like quality, like safety, to push decision making down into the team. Well, when you do that, you are actually letting people make more decisions about how they do their work, how they support one another, how they check in with one another.
Does that happen as much at senior levels? No, probably not. I don’t know that for a fact. I actually don’t have data that suggests that you only see these big transformations at senior levels, you actually see transitions in teams at all levels. The variable seems to be whether or not there’s trust that exists between the team and the team leader, regardless of the level. Where there’s trust, then there’s individualization, where there’s no trust, there isn’t.
ALISON BEARD: Is it possible that in a scenario where you don’t have a great boss or you don’t lot of trust that you can identify these red threads, try to shift a little bit, but the real answer is maybe not quitting your job, but shifting your role, getting a new title, such that it’s very clear to everyone that you’re now going to be focusing on X, Y and Z that you do love and not on ABC that you don’t?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yeah. Once you’ve scavenged and you’ve found some of these red threads and you volunteered, maybe you’re in human resources, but you found that you are always instinctively aware of brand and every time you go to a conference, you are aware of how the company’s branded. And so, you keep sending emails about it and you keep sending emails about it. And then, eventually, somebody goes, “You seem to be fixated. I mean, you’re in HR for crying out loud, but you seem to be fixated on how we’re coming across to our customers.” At that point, keep volunteering. But at some juncture, it absolutely makes sense to go, “You know what? I need to change the role because the role I want to be in, frankly, is I want to be in charge of brand. I want brand to be part of my responsibilities.”
One of the big changes that we can do is to change jobs from defining them in terms of the steps that are needed to defining them in terms of the outcomes. And so, if you are the sort of person who’s like, “I’m into brand,” then putting that and making sure that’s put into your title, into your job description, even in terms of what you put on LinkedIn or Indeed or whatever, formalizes it for people. And that kind of symbolism is really, really useful.
Now, again, if you’ve got a manager who’s stuck in their set ways, that’s going to be trickier. I mean, in some organizations you’ve got to kind of run it up to… I don’t know where you have to run it up to, but heaven itself to get your title changed. But in other organizations, many smaller organizations, for people to go, “You know what? She’s our brand person and she wasn’t before and her work history doesn’t suggest she should be, but her red threads lead her there all the time so now we’re actually going to turn that into our expectations of you and then, we’re going to codify that.”
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Or even a sort of formal change in roles and responsibilities I think could work. The HR example is good, actually, because there’s so much focus on employer brand too, so she could actually stay in HR and just have that become the role that she plays on that team.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yes.
ALISON BEARD: It does seem also that a big part of making this transition for yourself with or without your boss’ support is finding or helping people find their red threads. So I hate spreadsheets, I have a colleague who really loves them and is really good at it and sort of the record keeping part of our job. And so, when you know that, you can encourage those people to sort of follow their red threads more in a way that divides the labor better for everyone, right?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: And that’s where we’re going, because one of the most beautiful things of taking your own red threads seriously, which you should have been taught to do at nine, but you weren’t, but okay, life still goes on so you can learn it now, one of the great things of taking that seriously for yourself and understanding the vivid detail, the fine filigreed nature of what you love is you start to realize that other people are unique and filigreed in their red threads as well.
If I’ve got 5,000 murky ways in me and I’ve got red threads that are weird and wonderful and unique and want to be turned into contribution, then that person over there does too. And their race and their gender and their nationality and their religion really doesn’t tell me very much at all about what their uniqueness is. And so, every introduction, every person you work with, if we could build into work more curiosity about that person’s loves and loathes, not to be narcissistic, but so that we can be kind of awe-inspired by, “Oh my word, this person’s so not me and yet so has a contribution to make.”
And that’s not idealistic. You look at the best platoons or rather, squads in the army, you see stuff like that. You look at the best teams in a Best Buy, you see stuff like that. As I was mentioning on a previous episode, you look at the best housekeeping teams in hotels, you see that kind of, “Oh my word, she’s like this. And he’s like that.” And that’s awesome.
So yes, sometimes we’re all going to have to, by the way, wade in and just do the tough, dirty work ourselves that we all don’t like, okay, that’s fine, that sometimes happens. The Mayo Clinic stuff says maybe 80% of your job is differently colored threads. All right. But to your point, Alison, we want work to be one of those places where we are seen for all that we are. And I don’t mean just in a diversity, equity and inclusion sense, I mean, just in the full sense of who are you, Alison? Who am I?
ALISON BEARD: And if you can’t find that in your job, but you also can’t quit, is a side hustle the solution?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yes. People talk about work-life balance as though that’s what we should be striving for. Of course, that’s a terrible metaphor because nothing healthy in nature is balanced. Everything in nature is moving. And how do you move through life in such a way that you gain nourishment from the movement. And so, our lives are filled with our job, they’re filled with our kids, they’re filled with our grandparents, our parents, our community activism, our faith. and it may be that some of us have no bloody red threads at all in our job, okay. There might be other domains in which you can find other red threads. Don’t do the side hustle to make an extra buck, well, you can, I suppose, but you’re trying to, actually, fill your life with more love because you’re more creative, more resilient, you’re more collaborative, et cetera, when you’ve got more love in your life. And so, side hustles, really, are part of that scavenging for more love in your life.
And we look around the world and gosh, you can see so many darn examples of people who followed their love into a side hustle and then turned it in something magnificent. I mean, for crying out loud, Albert Einstein was a patent clerk, being a physicist was a side hustle. And he followed that. Now he’s an extreme example, of course, but when you find something that you love outside of your work, we do see, time and time again, that people, because the love connects to appetite and the appetite connects to resilience, and then that connects to learning, you do see people basically leaving the loveless work they have behind as they move into a side hustle that’s just, frankly, got way more red threads in it. And that’s an entirely legit strategy.
I wouldn’t suggest you start there, necessarily because there’s a lot that we could do. There’s the 73% of us who maneuver our jobs to fit ourselves better and we haven’t tried to do that. But side hustles are a beautiful way to scavenge.
ALISON BEARD: And so, what is the end game? What do you find in your research when people are able to make this shift and have more red threads reach that 20% threshold? What does it do for them?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, what we’re looking for in the end for you is this isn’t – it’s not, how much more stuff can I cram into my day? It’s not one efficiency mechanism after another. That’s not what we’re all after. What you’re looking for as an overall outcome is, do you feel that you can look forward positively to a day? Do you have positive anticipation for that day? Second, do you feel some sense of self mastery so that you are in control of how much love you feel in a day?
Your love is, in a sense, for contribution because you can feel a thing about what your love and then you don’t pat yourself on the back for it, you turn into contribution and then, the way in which you contribute gives more detail to that which you love, which then, in turn, leads into more contribution. It’s this ongoing kind of infinity loop of love leading to work, and then work and forming love. That’s what you’re after.
ALISON BEARD: Now, Marcus, what I really want is hard statistics like how much happier am I going to be? How much more engaged am I going to be? Give me some data.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: So what we do know from data is if you say that you have a chance to do something that you love every day, even if you’re not good at it, you are more than 10 times more likely to be highly engaged at work and you’re more than 17 times more likely to be more resilient at work. And when we look at resilience and engagement, that drives all sorts of things from customer satisfaction, to productivity and performance, to lost work days, to employee turnover. So love drives to the tune of 10 to 17 times more likely to be engaged and resilient. Love can give you all of that.
ALISON BEARD: Terrific. We’ve now finished up talking about what the individual can do. And next episode, we’re going to talk about how to make more love filled teams and organizations. Marcus, thanks so much for being around.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: My pleasure.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Marcus Buckingham, author of Love and Work. Listen to the entire mini series on finding joy in your job at hbr.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Ian Fox is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.