Thriving at Work

Happy employees make for a consistently high-performing workforce. This is the gist of a research that took over seven years, and involved over 1200 white and blue-collar employees from a broad range of industries, including manufacturing, financial services, health care, and higher education.

The January-February 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review featured the study by University of Michigan Ross School of Business professor, Gretchen Spreitzer, and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business assistant professor, Christine Porath. The study found that employees fitting the researchers’ definition of thriving demonstrated the following:
• 16 % better overall performance (as reported their managers)
• 125% less burnout than peers (self reported)
• 46% more satisfied with their jobs
• 32% more committed to the organization

In addition, these happy employees logged in less absences from work and fewer doctor’s visits, saving their employers health care costs and lost times.

The concept of thriving, according to Spreitzer and Porath, consists of two elements: vitality or the sense of being energized and alive; and learning or the gaining of knowledge and skills. Leaders who have the combined attributes – i.e., with high energy and high learning – were found to be 21% more effective than those who were only high energy. Having high energy but with low learning appear to be bad for employee health; 54% fared worse in terms of health, compared to those employees who were high-energy and high-learning types.

In offering insights for managers, the authors identified four reinforcing mechanisms that must all be in place for employees to thrive at work:
1. Providing decision-making discretion.
2. Sharing information.
3. Minimizing incivility.
4. Offering performance feedback.

Linking employee happiness with empowering them to make decisions is pretty intuitive. This is about giving employees autonomy and allowing them ownership of what their company is trying to accomplish. Facebook’s “Move fast and break things” motto embodies this empowerment mechanism, says the study.

In acknowledging the need for transparency – i.e., sharing information at the workplace, the study appears to eschew the “need to know basis” policy of many companies, which leads to communication silos. Instead, companies are encouraged to build trust and to build capacity for decision-making among their employees through a conscious effort to let their employees focus on the big picture – e.g., the company’s mission and strategy – and showing these employees how their respective work fits in the broader scheme of things. Whole Foods, and YRC Worldwide were the companies the study mentioned as having used the open book policy to their best advantage.

The study further reminds managers that incivility and rude behavior have costs to the company, including intentional decrease in effort (50% of employees studied); intentional decrease in quality of work (30% +); and decreased performance (75% +). Apparently, this research skipped the workplace at the most famously productive company in Cupertino, California. At Apple, Steve Jobs was supposed to have given free rein to his emotional outbursts. I would surmise that Apple was/is strong in other mechanisms, compensating for its weakness on the “civility” dimension.

In Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (Simon and Schuster, 2011), performance feedback from Mr. Jobs could be swift and brutal, yet the company under him has become an icon of innovation, productivity, and financial success. It could be that Apple is an exception, and the insights of Spreitzer and Porath may still apply to most companies. In advising performance feedback, the authors argue that it lends to learning opportunities and boosts energy levels, rather than overwhelm employees.

The authors caution that the four mechanisms reinforce each other and will not lead to thriving if only one or two are present. They offered that employees are least likely to be comfortable about making decisions when kept in the dark about information that matters, or when subjected to rude behavior. Providing an enabling environment for employees to thrive is not just a matter of organizational ethics; thriving employees lend to sustainable performance for the company.

An addendum article in the same Harvard Business Review issue reminds readers that even without additional organizational support, individual employees have ways of thriving on their own. Suggested strategies include the following:
1. Taking a break for creating positive energy.
2. Crafting one’s own work to be more meaningful – i.e., watching for opportunities to make the job more meaningful.
3. Looking  for opportunities to innovate and learn.
4. Investing in relationships that energize; spending less time with those that deplete energy.
5. Recognizing that thriving can spill over outside the office.

May we all work and thrive. 

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