Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior
Yale School of Management
The focus of my research is on how individuals derive meaning from their jobs within challenging work and life contexts. My work seeks to explain the psychological and social processes through which work meanings develop. As well, I study the implications of these work meanings for individuals and organizations. Specifically, I study how individuals’ orientations toward work influence organizational identification, job crafting, motivation, behaviors on the job, career trajectories between organizations, the meaning of work, and feelings and thoughts about work.
My research has developed from studying work orientations (i.e., work as a job, a career, or a calling) as an individual differences phenomenon to studying the dynamic interplay between the work context and work orientation. The process that unfolds when an individual’s work orientation enters an organizational context affects the way the individual defines the job, engages with others in the organization, and enacts an organizational role.
As well, the organizational context may reinforce, weaken, or have no effect on work orientation. My interest in the impact of organizational practices and work arrangements on individual experiences of work reflects a broadening of the lens I bring to the study of the meaning of work. I have chosen to study work meanings through a lens of problematic work contexts. This approach allows me to isolate particularly salient features of the organizational context in order to understand how they affect the expression of work orientation. The contexts in which I study the meaning of work include “dirty work” jobs (jobs that are judged by self or others to be odious or onerous), constrained occupational choices (in which individuals are not able to enter their desired occupation), periods of unemployment, virtual work, and organizations with conflicted identities. These contexts allow me to both test and build upon theories of the meaning of work, motivation and job design.
My general research frame draws from the influential work of Bellah and colleagues (1985) and their assertion that individuals experience work in one of three distinct ways: as a ‘job,’ (in which the individual is primarily concerned with the financial rewards of work); a ‘career,’ (in which the individual is focused on advancing within the occupational structure); or a ‘calling,’ (in which the individual works not for financial gain or career advancement, but instead for the sense of fulfillment that the work brings). I have used this core insight to develop and test theory about how work orientations affect individual behavior through their effects on goal structures that individuals bring to their work. Currently, I am studying how both the individual actions of employees and the social environment at work shape work orientations and the broader experience of the job (Wrzesniewski, Dutton, & Debebe, 2003).
My work addresses the possibility of finding positive meaning in work through a variety of paths: the work itself, its perceived contribution to the greater good, interactions and relationships with others on the job, and the ability to challenge oneself, to name a few. The roles that individuals and organizations can play in pursuit of this meaning stands at the heart of my focus in this domain.
Bellah, R. N.,
Sullivan, W. M.,
Swidler, A., &
Tipton, S. M. 1985.
Habits of the heart:
American life. New
York: Harper & Row.
Gandal, N., Roccas, S., Sagiv, L. & Wrzesniewski, A. (2005). Personal value priorities of economists. Human Relations, 58, 1227-1252.
Wrzesniewski, A., Dutton, J. E., & Debebe, G. (2003). Interpersonal sensemaking and the meaning of work. Research in Organizational Behavior, 25, 93-135.
Wrzesniewski, A. (2002). “It’s not just a job”: Shifting meanings of work in the wake of 9/11. Journal of Management Inquiry, 11(2), 230-234.
Wrzesniewski, A., & Dutton, J. E. (2001). Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 179-201. Reprinted in C. L. Cooper & W. H. Starbuck (Eds.), Work and Workers: A Three-Volume Set. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2005.
Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C. R., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, careers, and callings: People’s relations to their work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 21-33.
Wrzesniewski, A. & Tosti, J. (2005). Career as a calling. In J. H. Greenhaus & G. A. Callanan (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Career Development. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Wrzesniewski, A. (2003). Finding positive meaning in work. In K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, & R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive Organizational Scholarship. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Wrzesniewski, A., Rozin, P., & Bennett, G. (2002). Working, playing, and eating: Making the most of most moments. In C. L. M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: The Positive Person and the Good Life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.