Skip to content

Work Redesign


The more things change, the more they stay the same. In 1980, Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham wrote Work Redesign, which explains how and when to redesign work. I picked the book up in no small part due to my respect for Richard Hackman and his work in Collaborative Intelligence. What surprised me most as I read Work Redesign is that we believe many of the trends that are happening in our organizations are new. However, if you look back in time 40 years, you realize that the changes were already in motion – or they were completely in place. The fact that we’re still writing about the same things is interesting – and a bit confusing.

Worker Classes

It would be 2002 before Richard Florida would write The Rise of the Creative Class. Before then, we thought in terms of blue collar and white collar. We thought about those who worked on the floor doing “real work” and those who wore white dress shirts and ties and sat in air-conditioned offices. Since the earliest writings, there was a distinction. Management and the Worker, which goes back to the late 1920s, clearly delineates the management – white collar – and the worker – blue collar.

Despite the distinction, as early as 1974, both groups were saying the same thing. “I’m a robot.” Rather than being the height of what Taiichi Ohno put together with the Toyota Production System (TPS), which would become the core of lean ideas, workers felt like they were the machine – instead of the intelligence that allowed the machines to work effectively. (See Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management for more.)

What Workers Want

In the 1940s and 1950s, the thing that workers wanted most was “steady work.” Perhaps coming out of the Great Depression, workers were scarred by layoffs and lack of work. By 1957, not much had changed. Job security still topped the list of things that workers wanted. However, by 1969, the tide had already turned. Interesting work was the thing workers wanted most – and job security fell to the seventh position.

In 1968, Frederick Hertzberg wrote one of Harvard Business Schools’ most requested reprints, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” The snarkiest of titles was supported by a bi-modal representation of motivators. Hygiene factors were necessary to keep people from quitting. Motivating factors got them more engaged and increased productivity. Kahneman would elaborate on some of these concepts in his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. He summarized research that he did with Amos Tversky, which explained that additional money didn’t increase happiness equally.


In the same year that Work Redesign was published, Frederick Freudenberger published Burn-Out: The High Cost of High Achievement. His work was about how people who are high achievers seem to lose their fire. They suddenly burn out. People in burnout believe that what they’re doing doesn’t matter – it doesn’t make a difference. The story of Ralph Chattick in Work Redesign shows a different variation of the same problem. Ralph was a solid – but not necessarily high – achiever, but he made the same decision. He decided that his contributions didn’t matter, and as a result, he disengaged. Unlike the high achievers that Freudenberger was talking about, Ralph’s disengagement went unnoticed. (See the materials on our Extinguish Burnout site for more about burnout.)

People like Ralph disengage because it’s safer. They choose the path of least resistance rather than fight the system that they may see as set against them. They say, “If I’ve got to bust my ass to be meaningful, forget it; I’d rather be monotonous.” They resist redesign of their work because it disrupts their ability to accept their decision to disengage.

Redesigning Work

At its best, redesigning work serves to improve the quality of the relationship between people who do the work and the jobs they perform. At its worst, it exploits people and makes them victim of a system. It intentionally burns them out and discards them. However, even when the intentions are best, they collide with the disengaged staff who are quite happy with the arrangement they’ve made and don’t appreciate the implication that their work will be changed.

Rather than being seen as a gift and an invitation to make things better, the work redesign process dredges up memories and feelings long since buried about how they’ve lost their dreams and aspirations for their work career. The result can be a very negative reaction, which may serve to poison others to the work redesign process or to cause them to want to leave the organization.

Decades of Engagement

While there are many areas where the research from 40 years ago matches that of today, there are some places where the desires of employees seem to be shifting. In the 1980s, there had been 20 years of consistent job satisfaction, ending with about 80 percent of people being satisfied with their jobs. However, more recent evaluations by Gallup seem to point to people being disengaged with their jobs. Today, only slightly more than 30% would say they’re actively engaged in their organizations with the remainder sorted between ambivalent and actively disengaged (also called subversive).

There is a subtle change from satisfaction to engagement, but at the same time, such low levels of engagement are concerning. It can be that folks like Ralph are really satisfied but have become disengaged with their work, because long ago, they decided that it wasn’t going to be fulfilling, and even if it could be, it wasn’t worth the effort.

Under Engagement

One of the things that sometimes happens with children and animals can happen with workers. Rather than becoming consciously disengaged, they can become a part of the actively disengaged. While they may not think of their activities designed to make work more interesting as sabotage, the organization may see it that way. Children and animals who aren’t sufficiently engaged will often create havoc just to get attention or activity.

The solution for situations like these is to increase the opportunity for alignment and engagement with the workers so they no longer feel like the best kind of attention is negative attention.

Rocking the Boat

When we pursue an approach of organizational change through work redesign we must simultaneously consider that we may be unleashing the law of unintended consequences. In Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers references an old journal article, where Stone-Age Australians received steel axe heads, and the result was murder, prostitution, and the breakdown of society. While this may be the extreme example of what can happen even with the best intentions, we open ourselves up to this possibility when we initiate change.

Even with a good appreciation of how things are related to each other in systems and that the systems will continue to iterate, it’s very difficult to predict what will happen when multiple competing loops look to reinforce and balance various behaviors. (See Thinking in Systems for more.) Even Philip Tetlock in Superforecasting explains that prediction is hard, and only through continuous observation, revision, and seeking of diverse viewpoints can we approach predictability of most events.

Four Paths to Changing Work

There are four possibilities for changing the way that people work:

  • Change the people themselves – through different recruiting, placement, and education. (See Who for recruiting and hiring.
  • Change the supervisors – to change the personal influences influencing the workers. (See The Leadership Machine for attempts at this.)
  • Change the environment of the work – to achieve different behaviors through environmental influences. (See Kurt Lewin’s Behavior Function.)
  • Change the consequences of work – to apply external motivators.

Confusing Causal Arrow

Which way does the shape of behavior flow? As leaders, do we treat our employees a certain way because of our innate or learned beliefs, or are we adapting to their behaviors? Are we the tail or the dog? One of the challenges that we have when assessing our behavior – and the behavior of others – is determining what are the driving factors.

The short answer is that it’s both. There probably isn’t a causal arrow that flows in one direction. Instead, it’s more likely that they are co-dependent, and one causes the other and vice-versa.

Reciprocity is for People

Reciprocity is one of the greatest motivators available and thus why there is a prohibition against quid pro quo in government. (See Influence without Authority.) Robert Cialdini explains in Influence how small gifts can create a sense of indebtedness that powerfully motivates a response. Despite its power, it doesn’t work with organizations – it only works with people.

You can’t create a sense of reciprocity between organizations, because it works solely at the level of people – not organizations. That’s why it’s important to help managers build and maintain strong relationships with their teams – and why moving managers from position to position in the company can be costly.

Dysfunctional Dependency on Others

There are challenges created when too much dependency is created. In Anatomy of Love, it is pointed out that, when women started getting jobs that allowed them to become self-sufficient, the divorce rate soared. In other ways, we see that when we create too much dependency, the result is dysfunction both on the part of the person who is dependent and the person who is depended upon.

Social and Technical Systems

The activity of work redesign sits in the special place between technical and social. From a technical perspective, there should be an optimal flow. There should be a sequencing and arrangement that works best mechanically. However, the impact individually and in aggregate of employees has an important and potentially overwhelming impact on the design of the system.

At an aggregate level, people don’t always enjoy the most efficient approach. There is the need to recognize that, sometimes, for all humans, the best design is the one they’ll do. There plenty of examples of perfectly functional solutions that no one liked – and over time, they were abandoned for easier solutions.

At an individual level, it’s hard to design a single process devoid of the knowledge of the person because even though we know that aesthetics matter in aggregate, we also know that individuals have different preferences and desires. What may be optimally designed for one person may be unworkably impossible for another.

Together, these social issues are more challenging than any technical challenges that you might encounter. You’ll have to design for people in general – and for the people who are really doing the work.

High Growth Needs

One continuum of differences for individual is their desire and need for growth. In Strengths Finder, it’s called Learner. (See Strengths Finder 2.0.) The Values in Action (VIA) survey calls it Curiosity. (See my reviews of Flourish and The Hope Circuit, or take the free test at Steven Reiss in Who Am I? also calls it curiosity. Whatever you call it, it’s the desire to be challenged and to grow. People with these kinds of needs behave very differently than those who don’t have a high need for growth.

Some people are quite happy living their lives as they are. Their needs are simple, and they’re quite content with a degree of safety and security. They’re uncomfortable with high growth, because high growth means taking risks and striving in ways that threaten the safety they value.

On the other hand, those who are high-growth would be bored with such a stable situation. They’d be disruptive just to have some excitement in their lives. When you’re looking to change the work of someone, it’s important to realize the desire for growth in the individuals. The higher the growth, the greater the interest in change and optimizing the process. Conversely, the lower the need for growth, the greater the desire for safety and minimization of changes.

Redefining Tasks

I was in a co-op program where I was working for Dow Corning. My job was to handle administrative tasks related to the storage of chemical formulas and the processes that created them. The data entry was very boring for me, and while I did it, I took rather minor parts of my job and invested in them to create effective templates that made the whole process easier to execute. For me, it was more fun to optimize the process than it was to do the work.

It was a fair trade for my employer, but it was definitely not what they were thinking when we started. Whenever I think about how people redefine the tasks in ways that are interesting and comfortable for them I think back to those days. I realized that with latitude – that I needed – I was able to change the definition of my work, and the research says that I’m not alone. Every employee, to some large or small degree, redefines the task they’re given in the context of what they want.

Visibility of Work Performance

If you’re going to redesign work for performance, one thing is clear: you’ve got to plan to show people the results of their work – their performance. It’s the obvious statement that gets missed in businesses and makes the successes and failures of entrepreneurs seem magical. Most people today go to work and know that they’ll receive a fixed amount of money for the work they perform. Even those whose income is variable find that they have some base amount they’re guaranteed to make and a second variable amount that is stacked on top. The predictability is part of why millions of people get up and go to work every day.

Entrepreneurs are the rare breed that are aware that their actual income is quite unrelated to the effort they put in or, in some cases, even the skills they possess. They accept the risks associated with working hard for potentially little gain in the hopes that their work will be rewarded handsomely. But entrepreneurs are the exceptions. Even entrepreneurs long for some degree of predictability in their efforts. That’s why books like The E-Myth Revisited, which extols the ability to build systems that generate predictable results, are so popular.

However, when we redesign work, we often forget to directly connect the work that people are doing with the results that are being received – both personally and organizationally. While The Four Disciplines of Execution includes both a focus on lead measures and the creation of a clear scorecard, few organizations build such clear linkages. Despite Douglas Hubbard’s How to Measure Anything, most organizations fail to measure the results of the work that individuals do – and report it back to them.

While there is such a thing as too much emphasis on metrics, measurement, and achievement, as The Tyranny of Metrics explains, too few organizations know what the metrics are that connect the work behavior with the desired outcomes, and therefore they fail to give workers the feedback they need to improve. We know from research on the highly productive psychological state of flow that immediate feedback is required for 5x performance, but it’s all too often missing. (See FlowFinding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more.)

Groups or Individuals to Complete the Work

Perhaps the most perplexing challenge facing anyone who is working on redesigning work is whether to assign the task to an individual or to a group. Working in teams has become in vogue. However, that doesn’t mean that everything should be assigned to a team, as Team Genius points out. Some tasks are more efficient and better suited for an individual, and some require a diversity of skills and perspectives that can – practically speaking – only be found in a team.

As you plan to change work, making the decision about whether the work should be performed by an individual or a team may just be the key to make your Work Redesign successful.