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Weird Work: Creating Successful Work Lives Outside Organizational Contexts


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Title: Weird Work: Creating Successful Work Lives Outside Organizational Contexts

Weird Work Creating Successful Work Lives
Outside Organizational Contexts
  • Sue Ashford Ruth Blatt

Sample (Thus Far)
  • 27 full-time knowledge or creative workers in
    work roles outside of organizations from Bay
    Area, Boston and A2
  • Emphasis was on financial self-sustaining
    knowledge/creative workers.
  • 16 Males, 11 Females
  • Age 26 mid 50s average early 40s.
  • Time in Role 1 to 25 years all except one
    greater than 2 years in role.

6 Consultants
4 High Tech (programmers, Web designers)
4 Graphic Designers
4 Writers
3 Artists
And 4 other
Nonstandard workers Opening premises
  • Experience few of the taken-for-granted benefits
    of organizational life
  • Sense of place
  • Sense of community
  • Sense of status
  • Sense of meaning
  • Are becoming increasingly common
  • More standard jobs will be similar to these.

Nonstandard workers Positive deviants at what?
  • Thriving in weak situations
  • Everyone construes the situation differently
  • Less uniform expectancies regarding appropriate
    response patterns
  • No given incentives for particular behaviors
  • More ambiguity
  • (Mischel, 1973, Shamir, 1992)
  • Agency

Our research question How do nonstandard workers
create a successful work life in a weak situation?
  • What we asked them
  • Day-to-day life
  • Describe a good day, a bad day
  • Chunks of activities, daily routines
  • Coping
  • With distractions, ups and downs, tasks they do
    not enjoy
  • Advice to a novice nonstandard worker

Conditions N-S workers face and the challenges
they create
  • Too much Freedom
  • To work or not
  • What kind of work
  • Quality of work
  • Rapidly changing environment on
  • which their survival depends
  • Unattractive, difficult tasks
  • Work they dont like
  • Work that is selling out
  • Dealing with difficult clients
  • Freedom Challenge
  • Instability Challenge
  • Motivation Challenge

Freedom challenge
  • Mathematical modeler
  • Because the work environment is very much under
    my own control, which also means its under my
    lack of control. So if Im not on top of it, it
    can easily slide away.
  • Programmer
  • You wake up, anything could happen, and
    there's--there are no outside forces to force
    you, or even any times to even influence at all
    to make different kinds of decisions… there's not
    even a distinction between day and night really…
    there's no reason why you have to work during the
    day and not at night. There's no reason why you
    have to work during the week and not on the
    weekends. Any of it, it's totally arbitrary.
  • On the other side of liberation sits chaos and
  • (Schwartz, 2000,)

Instability challenge
  • Consultant
  • If you have a contract that is contingent upon,
    you know, an external force, that you say, "I've
    got to make myself available for four months,"
    and then it turns out that it only needs to be
    done in two months, or they've got something else
    that's coming in. That's a bad day, because then
    youve got to say, "Okay, how do I respond to
    that, what do I do with that time?
  • Programmer
  • it's very hard for me because money comes and
    goes… So when I have a lot of work to do, I
    usually-- I can't keep up. But then there's long
    stretches when I don't have any work to do. So
    it's hard to build up anything stable

Motivation challenge Work
they dont like
  • Artist
  • If you're coming in cold, trying to get a
    gallery to look at your work, it happens maybe
    five or six times a day… someone, an artist,
    walks in cold and says, "I'd like to show you my
    work." You can detect this kind of silent groan,
    Oh, not again, from the gallery owner.

Motivation challenge Work they dont
believe in
  • Graphic Designer
  • We recently did a book design for a corporate
    history of a logging company… and this book was
    like a personification of everything that I find
    evil laid out in a way that, like if they, it's
    not problematic to them. They think raping and
    pillaging is good… You're just like, I can't
    believe I'm typesetting this, I can't believing
    I'm designing this so that will look attractive.

Motivation challenge Work with
difficult clients
  • Graphic Designer
  • After the client asked for her request, I
    said, "Well, does this need to be done right
    now?" And she said, Well, I wouldn't be calling
    if it didn't, … I just wasnt so sure that she
    understood that their project is not the only one
    that I'm working on, and I just felt a little bit
    like they kind of want me at their beck and call

Prominent preoccupations of the nonstandard worker
Freedom/Structure Question How can I make the fr
eedom I enjoy workable?
Meaning Question Whats it all about? Why does
it matter?
How do I/what Im doing have value?
Economic Context (market/financial reality)
Directed agency Strengthening weak situations
The importance of self-awareness Advice to
hypothetical apprentices
  • From a consultant
  • I would suggest that the most important thing
    they could do was to really know themselves, to
    really understand how they think, what their
    mental models are, what they believe in, what
    they care about, how they show up in the world,
    what they project onto other people, what their
    shadow is, and to really, really know who this
    instrument is, and how it works.
  • From an independent social activist
  • I think the first thing I would do is figure
    out what your values are, and what you want to
    accomplish in life. Getting clear on your own
    self-motivators, and you know, your intrinsic

  • Knowledge of oneself as expressed in ones
    unique traits and values as well as in ones
    specific physical, emotional, and behavioral

Structuring and meaning-making rely on high
levels of self-awareness
  • Provides the content for meaning narratives,
    fostering a sense of continuity in the face of
  • Increases comfort with new and unknown
    situations, which guides and enables action
  • Increases ability to tailor working patterns to
    ones physical, emotional, and behavioral
    responses, which enhances effectiveness
  • Increases knowledge of personal strengths and
    thus self-efficacy for utilizing them

Freedom to
  • Set who (who they will be who will be
  • Set what (what they will take on what they
    will avoid)
  • Set when (when theyll work when theyll
    not work)
  • Set where (where they will work)
  • Set how (how they will go about tasks)
  • Set why (what meaning they will attach as
    to why they do what they do)

Making freedom work
  • Freedom/Structure question
  • How can I make the freedom I have workable?

Revel in it as a source of motivation
Go with it as a performance enabler
Guard against it to safeguard performance
Flee from its existential implications
Revel in freedom as a source of motivation
  • Author
  • The reason I wanted to be self-employed was I
    wanted this to be my life, no matter how much
    hard work it took to make sure that I was going
    to do what I wanted to do. I would rather go
    through the pain and suffering to make it work my
    way as opposed to riding the easy ride working
    for somebody nine to five.

Flee from freedoms existential implications
  • Consultant
  • And then you sit back and say, It would be a
    heck of a lot easier if -- you know, I had the
    corporate compensation, had all of those types of
    things, because then if you have a bad day, at
    least you can say, Well, Im paid really well.
    You know? Here you have a bad day, and you sit
    back and say, Not only arent you paid very
    well, but youve made really significant choices
    in that. So thats what drills down to the
    concern, you know, the dark night of the soul.

Go with freedom as a performance enabler
  • Consultant
  • I get up in the morn--you might have a full day
    of projects to work on and you just want to get
    up and--the brain's not connected to the rest of
    your body. And if you're creating stuff and if
    you're--dealing with details--some days it works
    and some days it doesn't. I So what do you do?
    So if you get up and no connection is coming,
    what do you do? R I generally re-write what
    I'm supposed to do today, again. I am the
    world's greatest list maker. . . . I break it
    down again and I see--what could I do without
    really thinking about it and get those out of the
    way if I can. Or vegetate and know that I'm
    gonna have to work harder tomorrow. Or I get up
    at two o'clock in the morning and punch it out.

Guard against freedom to safeguard performance
  • Writer
  • Then you have to say to yourself, Well, is it
    the best book I could have written? Did I slack
    off while I was writing that book? Did I put a
    full effort into it, or was I distracted? I
    You can tell when you slack off? R Yeah, you
    can tell. I don't slack off. You can't slack
    off. If you really want to be successful in this
    field, you kind of have to be an unrelenting
    force and when you slack off--You know, you know
    a slack day from an un-slack day. And you know
    that if you have too many slack days on
    something, you're on the slippery slope.

A simple resolution may not be best
  • Mathematical Modeler
  • Because they are trying to simulate an office
    without having one. So in a sense, right away,
    right off the ground you, you know, they
    hardwire in the very assumption that you made to
    begin with. So you come up with a tautology that
    for this to work you have to be in an office so
    you in order have a job that does not have an
    office you, youve got to have it as much like an
    office as possible. So there theres nothing
    youve tried there.
  • He goes on to say, I dont try to simulate an
    office because if I did I wouldnt be exploring
    the potential for this type of job arrangement.

Structuring domains
  • Nonstandard workers strengthen their situations
    by giving form or arrangement to their
  • Time
  • Activity
  • Space
  • Emotion

  • Writer
  • The best part of working for myself is when I
    feel intense and want to work incredibly hard I
    can. But then at the end of this project I can
    take off a month and thats what I plan to do.
  • Graphic Designers
  • One of the nicest things about working for
    yourself is that, and this is something we just
    started doing too, is that in the summer we get
    up really early, we get up at like 430 or 500
    in the summer, at least last summer we did. We
    had lots of work and it just felt great to get up
    at 530 or 600 and go straight to work and get
    tons of work done in the morning. In the winter,
    it's been like sleeping in til 900 because it's
    so dark.

  • A graphic designer who needs to focus comments
  • One day I'll work an hour, and it involves just
    sitting there during the day and working on a
    map. The other day I was like, oh, I've got to
    get ready for that meeting this afternoon. No I
    don't, I need to work on this map, I need to just
    think about the map, and it's hard for me to do
    that. I guess multitasking is supposed to be
    good, everybody wants you to do it, but it's
    really good for me when I can manage to sort of
    quell that urge."

  • An independent film writer on why she works on
    top of her bed
  • Because I think writing is so hard I have to
    feel really-I have to have comfort. I started to
    write because I couldnt get any acting work and
    Im pulsating with creativity with nowhere to go
    with it.
  • But its not all about comfort for this
  • "It's kinda like a fighter pilot cockpit. I
    kinda nestle in there, and unfortunately it's not
    very open and friendly, but it's like, "Okay, not
    I'm in my zone and everything is in arms' reach."
    … So for me when I'm in that physical state, I'm
    like I'm on a mission. It isn't really very
    relaxing, but I like the fact that I'm kinda, in
    the words of Woody Allen, Ive returned to the
    womb, anybodys laughs"

  • Graphic designer
  • I'm pretty good at staying out of my panic
    response. You can't panic, this is our business,
    you can't f this up because you don't want to
    go work for someone else. What I'm able to do
    is to not say that, but to not do that still
    takes a lot of energy. Just sort of hold my own
    emotions. The biggest thing that I think that
    does, emotion-wise, is that I can be sort of
    annoyingly flat. … It's tiring. I would prefer
    that that wasn't one of the job skills I needed,
    but it is.

Structuring Strategies
  • Setting short-term goals
  • Setting deadlines
  • Routines
  • Tailoring
  • Emotion Management

Goals and goal setting
  • One programmer focuses on financial goals.
  • I set a goal, I set a financial goal. You know,
    if I do this one job and it sucks because my
    goal, my per day goal right now - and it changes
    all the time - but right now I like to think that
    I can produce 300 worth of work in a day. And
    thats -- even if I close a 2,000 deal, that
    doesnt actually equate to 300.
  • A writer states it simply
  • So for distractions, you have to keep your eye
    on the prize. What is it that you want to get
    done today?

Deadlines Time goals
  • A writer puts their value colorfully
  • When you're near deadlines, and you think, you
    dont really have time for exploration, here Pal.
    You need words. You need lots of words on pages,
    that make sense, that are really good. So no
    more "f"-ing around. You nail youre a to a
    chair and get it done. But you try not to be
    too much like a Turkish jailer most of the time.
    But there are times when you have to be you have
    to read yourself the riot act.
  • Or, for a more nontraditional approach
  • I like use the T.V. to kind of keep track of
    time Laugh. Its so strange. When I work at
    home a lot I actually, I usually have a T.V. on
    all the time and its really strange because I
    dont watch it necessarily. Its more like its
    on in the background, its like having company a
    little bit. But and then I sort of know the
    schedule --that certain shows come on during the
    day and so I sort of subconsciously time myself
    according to what things are on.

  • Setting routines and following them religiously
    yields focus and sustained action
  • Author
  • I think it's routine important, one, because
    it's so easy to be distracted. The world is so
    absolutely fascinating …And everything can
    become interesting if you really put enough
    energy. . . . you have to be careful where that
    energy goes shooting out!
  • Artist
  • Im pretty much a creature of habit. From the
    sort of obsessive pathological stuff to coming in
    and watering the plant first or something like
    that. Theres always sort of a set routine that
    I follow. Put the apron on before you
    begin-those kinds of things.
  • Author
  • Routines are the wardens of accomplishment

Tailoring - To create a life
  • Consultant
  • I really have been, in my mind,
    opportunistically fluid in terms of that on some
    occasions my hours are defined by, you know, 15
    hour days. You know, on other occasions I think
    about--well, and I'm in Michigan. The chance of
    having a sunny day, you know, in the next week or
    so is such that I'm gonna go play golf or
    whatever this afternoon, and then working on the
    weekend is not an issue.

Tailoring - To match moods
  • Public Sector Consultant
  • working on--you know, unless I have a big
    deadline, working on what my mind is sort of open
    to be doing at that point. And then, when it
    goes stale, putting it away and not forcing it.
    Then, taking a longish lunch hour, doing some
    errands so that, you know, I don't feel like
    that's intruding on my thoughts as I'm working,
    and then, working again from about 200 till 500
    or 600, again, doing the same thing, kind of
    rotating through different projects.

Emotion management
  • Distancing
  • Perspective
  • via control
  • via proportion
  • via balance
  • via reduced expectations
  • Stoicism
  • Letting go
  • Mentally buckling down
  • Breaks
  • Social support

Emotion management
  • Distancing
  • I think I try to take it sort of less
    personally, I mean, it--you know, if a
    relationship that I'm managing falls through, it
    falls through.
  • Perspective via control
  • I've just come to recognize a lot of that kind
    of stuff is out of my control
  • Perspective via proportion
  • I think that when I was younger, I was much more
    concerned about doing the idealistic right thing
    and doing a good job and now I'm just a little
    bit more like, well, it's just a job. I don't
    want it to consume my life.

Emotion management
  • Stoicism
  • I used to get really angry if I had work to do
    and I didnt want to do it, I would just sit
    there fuming at the computer. But now I just
    realize that there is no point in getting angry
    that I just need to do it.
  • Finding social support
  • I think its helped to interact with other
    people and joining the AID or other organizations
    that allow you to interact with other people and
    not just get stuck in your own little world,
    because its very easy…. Because like you
    literally stop interacting with other people
    because youre so busy trying desperately to keep
    things going and the fact is that if you take a
    couple of hours out of the day to go do something
    else nothings going to fall apart, you know, in
    the meantime.

Meaning Making
Directed Agency Strengthening Weak Situations
  • Context
  • Challenges of
  • weak situations
  • Freedom
  • Instability
  • Motivation

Workable Structure Grounded Direction Positi
ve Motivation
Sustained High-Quality Performance Well-being
Self awareness
Context Challenges of a changing economic

  • Constructing a coherent narrative that links
    ones activities to a higher purpose and lends
    them significance. (Baumeister Vohs, 2002
    Pratt Ashforth, 2003 Wrzesniewski, Dutton,
    Debebe, 2003)

Meaning Resources
  • Means that are available and can be drawn upon
    when needed to adapt to situations, help with
    difficulties and support activities.

Meaning resources
  • Task-focused meanings
  • Loving ones labor and its fruits
  • Overcoming task-related challenges
  • Impact-focused meanings
  • Impact on others
  • Being part of something bigger than self
  • Self-focused meanings
  • Develop the self (Where am I going?)
  • Identity Expression (Who am I? Who am I not?)
  • Financial-focused meanings
  • Survival of self and the independent enterprise

Meaning resources Examples from a database
  • Financial-focused meaning role as breadwinner
    I don't necessarily like marketing, but you
    simply have to do what you have to do.
    Interviewer So how do you get yourself to it?
    Respondent To me, I look at my family and
    decide I have to do it.
  • Self-focused meaning who he is not I would
    never work for a defense company, even though it
    may be a big contractor. There are businesses
    where I could never work in a casino. At least
    that would help you on making these marketing
    phone calls.

Meaning resources Examples from a database
  • Task-focused meaning Broadening the
    contribution A large majority of what I do is
    understanding the business, understanding how it
    runs, and understanding not only how it runs now,
    but what is it that the customer would be
    interested in in the future
  • Other-focused meaning Impact on customers As
    far as I'm concerned, architecture is more
    important than specific project development. In
    that sense, you are in bed with the business case
    itself. In that sense, you are really playing an
    integral role for that customer…We are business
    analysts turned technical.

Meaning Narratives
  • Working to do what you love (task-focused)
  • Working toward what you believe
    in (impact-focused)
  • Working to stay free / be authentic (self-focused)

  • Working to earn money (Financial-focused)

Directed Agency Strengthening Weak Situations
  • Context
  • Challenges of
  • weak situations
  • Freedom
  • Instability
  • Motivation

Workable Structure Grounded Direction Positi
ve Motivation
Sustained High-Quality Performance Well-being
Self awareness
Context Challenges of a changing economic

Meeting the freedom challenge - Creating workable
structure through action logics
  • Author
  • The lectures … give me the foundation. They
    save me from having to write crap, you know. I
    would rather go out and speak and sing for my
    supper, than write crappy, cheesy books in this
    field, of which there are so many… I would rather
    go out and speak about books in schools and talk
    to children and teach teachers and librarians and
    students real genuine stuff, than to have to
    write disingenuous material in order to support

Meeting the freedom challenge - Creating workable
structure through focus
  • Writer on distractions
  • You can either go, This is f driving me nuts
    I gotta get out of here. Or you just kind of put
    the horse blinders on and batten the hatches.
    And you gotta batten the hatches. Otherwise,
    every five minutes you'll be hopping up, and if
    you're in your own home you'll be running to the
  • Software engineer
  • Like if things aren't going well and if I'm
    trying to work really fast because time is of the
    essence, like I need to make sure I'm very
    focused and not wandering and veering off,
    getting sidetracked

Meeting the instability challenge - Creating
grounded direction through narrative
  • Artist
  • The older I get the more important it is to feel
    like what Im doing is a profession of some sort…
    The tension for me now is to make work that I can
    stand behind as an artist and yet at the same
    time find ways to make that work sell. So that
    tension is just increasing as I go along. And
    its not about fame, Im finding thats what Im
    surprised about. It actually can be an engine…
    It helps the creative work and sort of begins to
    shape ways of actually going about it, making
    it-painting it, literally painting it.

Meeting the instability challenge - Creating
grounded direction through sustained action
  • Artist
  • You pass through feeling sorry for yourself for
    a little while. Then you realize how loathsome
    that is and kind of move on. I think what helped
    was it was the end of the week and I got to take
    a couple days off-I dont work on the weekends.
    And coming back Monday I was able to get up a
    head of steam and come back, clear out a bunch of
    that work and put some things up and say, Oh
    yeah, thats kind of nice I think.

Meeting the motivation challenge - Creating
positive motivation through purpose
  • Consultant on how she motivates herself to do
    least favorite activities
  • I have to find something that inspires me about
    it… around the marketing, its realizing that I
    feel passionate about my work, and how much I
    enjoy sharing that with people, and to find the
    way to do that feels its like its the right
    relationship so that Im offering something
    rather than selling something.

Meeting the motivation challenge - Creating
positive motivation through energy
  • A graphic designer
  • Part of that comes from the attitude and part of
    it comes from choosing what work I do. I don't
    say yes to everything. So when I do say it to
    something, it's something that not only do I want
    to be involved but I want it to succeed. And so
    you know to bring that energy to it.

The interplay of meaning-making and structuring
  • Consultant
  • I How do you know if you're successful in your
    job? R You get paid.
  • Later he tells what made a good day recently
  • What made it successful is I assume I'm being
    paid and I'm getting through what I need to get
    through. When you're by yourself, it's a totally
    different subculture. You know I spent most of
    my life in corporations. And being on your own
    makes you in charge of the mailroom, in charge of
    the accounting department. And when I say in
    charge, you are it. So unless you're highly
    disciplined, to be able to work as whatever you
    want to describe it, you're gonna be in deep
    do-do, because you can't just do one thing, you
    gotta be able to segment yourself.

Outcomes of structuring and meaning-making
  • Workable Structure
  • Action-logics
  • Focus
  • Boundaries
  • meeting the freedom challenge
  • Grounded Direction
  • Narrative
  • Sustained action
  • meeting the instability challenge
  • Positive Motivation
  • Purpose
  • Energy
  • Efficacy
  • meeting the motivation challenge

  • Workable Structure
  • Grounded Direction
  • Positive Motivation

Sustained High-Quality Performance Well-bein

Conclusions In weak situations people
  • Meet the challenges of freedom, instability, and
    motivation through the core processes of
    structuring and meaning-making
  • In their structuring, they proactively strengthen
    the situation
  • In their meaning-making, they intertwine job
    and calling aspects of their work

The End . . . . Thanks. . . .
Workable structure
  • Boundaries
  • Graphic Designer on the costs of not getting it
  • Because I would like literally be in my house
    all the time. Like I would go out for groceries
    and laundry and that was about it. I would work
    in my pajamas and like literally… I mean I was
    joking that I would end up with like woodland
    creatures in my hair and Kleenex boxes for shoes.
    I thought I was going to lose it.

Increases Comfort with Ambiguity
  • The last time I was not affiliated with an
    institution, and I was probably, I don't know,
    ten, fifteen years younger, I would worry about
    how hard to be on myself. But this time it's
    not a problem. I think I just am so much more
    knowledgeable about myself, comfortable with my
    choices, focused on what I want to get done, even
    though what I want to get done isn't so specific
    as much as it's really making a difference.
  • Social activist

Allows for Tailoring
  • You need to know when to ask for help and you
    need to know when to work on your own. I guess
    in a business setting, it's not really like
    working harder, it's like work smarter instead of
    working faster.
  • Programmer

Increases Knowledge of Strengths
  • "Thats one of my strengths I can really focus
    and just sit, I mean Ill do this for weeks. And
    thats why Im better at doing this than
    journalists who write for newspapers and stuff.
    Because I have the time and I think its really
    fun to read a hundred pages and find one sentence
    where I can nail a guy for lying. Thats what I
    like to do.
  • Writer (nonfiction)

Outcomes of Structuring
  • Workable Structure
  • Focus
  • Boundaries
  • Grounded Direction
  • Sustained action
  • Positive Motivation
  • Efficacy
  • Energy