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Feeling Bad at Your Job? It Might Be a Problem With the Design

by Katie Moritz
May 17, 2017 | Work

When you feel like you should be killing it at work—but in reality every day feels like a struggle—it can wear on you. You might start to wonder if you're smart and capable enough, if you made a big mistake taking the job, if you're disappointing everyone—because you're definitely disappointing yourself.

But a Harvard Business School expert on job design (I'll get into what that means, don't worry) says it might not be you, it might actually be your job's fault.

Is your job bringing you down?

Robert Simons, a professor of business administration at the school, believes that a poorly designed job, one that asks too much or the wrong things of an employee, can burn out even the most hardworking and intelligent person. Even if you want to love your job, a bad design can frustrate you and set you up to fail.

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Poor job design is linked in some cases to the economic squeeze many workplaces have been facing since the Great Recession. Workers are often expected to do more with the same or less.

In Dan Schawbel's 2013 book "Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success," he wrote that "if you want to succeed in today’s workplace and make a name for yourself, you’ll have to do a lot more than what you got hired to do. In fact, your job description is just a scratch on the surface of what you should be doing," Jenna Goudreau reported for Business Insider.

“Today’s jobs are expanding in terms of what is expected of people, but the resources people get to do those jobs is not expanding,” Simons said in an article by Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. “People feel more pressure to own their roles and they’re stressed because they’re being pulled in a lot of different directions, but they’re not getting the help they need.”

When a boss asks an employee to take on more tasks than they can handle, people burn out.

"You add more and more stuff, and no one thinks of the cost in terms of energy, lack of focus, and diversion of priorities," he said.

Overwhelmed? Ask for resources, help

Through his research, Simons learned that for a job design to be successful, the work being asked of you needs to match with the resources available to you, which come from two sources: "resources that you control directly through your position in the organization... and other people’s willingness to help you."

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If you're unable to complete your work—like if you've tried to talk about job issues with your boss and they were unable or unwilling to help you find a solution—you might not have the resources available to you to succeed in your role, Simons' research suggests. Your workplace needs to foster a culture of support in order for you to be successful.

“In some organizations, it’s every man or woman for themselves,” Simons said to Harvard Business School. “You eat what you kill, and no one is willing to help others. If a person is asked to do a lot of things—innovate, spend time influencing others—but the person can’t get help when he reaches out for it, that job is doomed.”

Is your job is well-designed?

Is all this sounding awfully familiar? Simons developed a free online tool you can use to test your current job's design and offer suggestions to make it better. You can also run jobs you're applying for through the tool once you know enough about the position.

The tool evaluates the job based on four questions:

  1. What resources do I control directly within the organization to get the job done? (span of control)
  2. What measures will be used to evaluate my performance? (span of accountability)
  3. Who do I need to influence to achieve the goals for which I’m accountable? (span of influence)
  4. How much support can I expect when I reach out to others for help? (span of support)

(You can learn more about each of these factors here.)

Design be rewire

Even if you don't use the tool, the concept of job design can help you think about positions differently the next time you're job hunting. Based on the duties listed in the job description, you can ask during an interview what resources will be available to you to help you accomplish those goals. Remember, it's a chance for you to interview them as much as it is for them to interview you. Make sure you're joining a company that will set you up for success.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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