I remember dancing with joy. Alone. In the office. At 2 AM.
I had analyzed the results of an organizational climate study, and they were exactly as I predicted. I did the work, and it was good, useful, meaningful work. Rewarding work. Alone, in the office at 2 AM, I knew that this was a job well done.
Work can be a wonderful source of joy. And the right kind of work can be an exceptional source of joy for autistic people, with our powerful drive to engage in our interests.
I felt great joy in putting the words together in the way they would sing to me. Having my writing go viral is a nice bonus – but wrangling with words until the exact right ones are in the exact right order is a real joy. There are other sources of joy – hearing that a former student got a fantastic job or enrolled in a doctoral program. Seeing an organizational culture survey showing an improvement in employee sense of belonging. Witnessing improved organizational communication.
If only more people understood how joyfully productive the autistic experience could be – that is, when we are not assaulted by overstimulating environments, bullied, or forced to fit into narrow “round holes” by those who deny that a square peg is a peg, and an autistic human is a human.
Too often, autistic people are portrayed as unidimensionally gloomy, struggling, or sad. Most AI-generated images of an “autistic person” portray a young, white man, sitting in the dark, looking miserable. Autism stereotypes ignore not just productivity, but the joy that comes with autistic love of nature, animals, writing, inventing – or other types of meaningful work. This joyful productivity gave the world Temple Grandin, Chris Packham, and many other autistic achievers.
But what if instead of excluding and stereotyping autistic people or trying to fit us into the soulless machine of old–fashioned work, crushing our joy and productivity, organizations focused on creating more joy at work – for everyone?
From Job Crafting to Joy Crafting.
In organizational psychology, we often talk about job satisfaction. Engagement. Affective commitment. Positive affect at work. Meaning. Intrinsic motivation.
But what if we focused on joy more? The foundational human joy of being engaged in something intrinsically motivating? Something aligned with our strengths and sources of intrinsic satisfaction, such as the pursuit of quality, discovery, creativity, or meaning.
We also talk about job crafting – making work more meaningful through task crafting, relational crafting, and cognitive crafting.
But what about joy crafting?
Joy crafting at work can be seen as both more audacious and more holistically human than job crafting. It acknowledges the emotional core of our being, with the aim of making work not just better, or more tolerable, but truly enjoyable.
Yes, I can hear people saying that work is supposed to be … well, work. And work is not supposed to be fun.
But where does the assumption that work should be a grind come from? Perhaps it’s well past time to challenge this assumption?
“If it was fun it would not be called work” can be a toxic, dangerous attitude. A deadly attitude, in fact – misery at work is destructive to human health and to organizational health. Work as a necessary evil, work as a transactional activity, work as a workaholic compulsion to keep running the rat race of hustle culture – none of these models of work served us well.
But what if work could be a component of personal well-being and growth? Not a sole source of joy or fulfillment, but a healthy part of a well-rounded life?
A healthy – and joyful – life-work balance is possible. But it will require updating the way we think about work. It will require a shift from the traditional, rigid structures that often break people to fit predefined roles. It will require creating work environments that foster organic growth and fulfillment, aligned with the intrinsic nature of who we are as individuals.
Redefining Work for Organic Growth:
The traditional work model often demands conformity, fitting humans into pre-existing roles and expectations – while stifling creativity, dampening motivation, and hindering personal growth. Joy crafting thinking envisions an organically developing work environment where roles evolve, aligning with individuals’ unique strengths, passions, new skills, and growth trajectories.
Organizations can facilitate joy crafting, along with inventiveness and productivity, by focusing on:
- Personal Alignment:
- Recognize that every person has unique strengths and passions. Work should be an extension of these strengths, not handcuffs.
- Nurture an environment where employees are encouraged to explore and express their true selves within their roles, and grow toward more joy.
- Organic Role Evolution:
- Instead of static job descriptions, advocate for roles that evolve as individuals grow and develop. This approach allows retaining committed, engaged, experienced employees, rather than forcing them to look for growth and joy elsewhere while bearing the replacement and training costs.
- Encourage cross-functional collaborations and projects that allow employees to explore different aspects of work, furthering their growth and engagement.
- Leadership for Growth:
- Train all leaders to understand the importance of personal alignment and organic employee growth. Leaders should act as facilitators, helping their team members find and pursue paths that resonate with their innate drive.
- Develop leadership focused on empathy, understanding, and support for individual growth journeys.
Transforming Cultures for Radical Inclusion:
A shift to joy crafting also requires a cultural transformation. Workplaces should become an inclusive, nurturing ground for personal and professional development, where meaningful work is not a buzzword, but a true commitment.
This joyful work culture means:
- Valuing diversity in thinking and approaches to work, and understanding that a one-size-fits-all model is counterproductive.
- Establishing systems that support individual exploration and growth, such as mentorship, career development opportunities, and flexible work
Autistic people can experience great joy – including joy that comes from work aligned with our strengths. But all employees can feel this type of joy if organizations support joy crafting – aligning work with our strengths and sources of intrinsic satisfaction, such as creativity or meaning. Joy crafting isn’t just a productivity strategy; it’s an extension of the focus on dignifying the human aspect of work – a necessity of inclusion that is at the core of my book, The Canary Code. It is about moving away from the outdated notion of breaking people to fit job roles and towards a human-centric approach of organically aligning work and individuals’ unique patterns of talents. This win-win approach is essential both for individual well-being and for cultivating a thriving, innovative, and fulfilled workforce.