Posted

by Michelle McQuaid

An Interview with Professor Gretchen Spreizter

Are people thriving in your workplace?  Or are busyness, uncertainty, and ambiguity leaving them feeling overwhelmed and burned out?  Let’s face it, navigating the highs and lows of workplaces these days can be challenging even for the most resilient of us.

Having your people thrive at work may sound like an impossible dream.  But in order to ensure your people’s performance is sustainable, studies suggest finding ways to help your employees feel energized and able to grow is the key to helping people to be more creative, persistent and motivated and less likely to burn out.

“Our multi-year research has found that thriving employees not only have more positive individual outcomes, they also help their organizations better achieve their goals,” said Professor Gretchen Spreitzer from the University of Michigan when I interviewed her recently. “It suggests that organizations who want to be sustainable should create great places for people to work, where they can grow and develop and become their best selves.”

For example, Captain Denny Flanagan a United Airlines pilot was profiled in the Wall Street Journal as a thriving employee.  While most pilots might feel it’s beyond their job description to help passengers cope with late or cancelled flight Captain Flanagan thrives by trying to make flying fun for others and continually trying to get better at what he does.

When pets travel in cargo compartments, the United Airlines veteran snaps pictures of them with his cell phone camera, and then shows owners that their animals are on board. He writes notes to first-class passengers and elite level frequent fliers on the back of his business cards, addressing them by name and thanking them for their business. If flights are delayed or diverted to other cities because of storms, he tries to find a McDonald’s where he can order 200 hamburgers, or a snack shop that has apples or bananas he can hand out. He goes beyond the normal job requirements for a pilot, seeing himself as a crucial ambassador for the troubled airline.

But how can organizations nurture more thriving employees like Captain Flanagan?

Gretchen’s research has found that there are four levers leaders can use and that the biggest impact comes when all four work together.  They include:

  • Empowering People – employees need to believe that they have some discretion or choice about how they do their work. Whilst performance should be defined with clear metrics, employees should be able to help determine how these outcomes are achieved.  Providing discretion not only sparks energy when employees feel valued for their ideas, but also taps into learning because employees are not told what to do and how to do it. Giving people the knowledge and tools for job crafting can empower them to shape their roles around their strengths, interests and passions.
  • Being Transparent – People need good information in order for them to be able to do their work well. They need to have an understanding of the vision of the organization, the competitive landscape and the strategic objectives they are supporting.  Don’t leave your people operating on a need-to-know basis. Giving them more information, even if it’s not necessary for their own jobs, helps them be able to see the big picture and builds a sense of trust.  In particular, try to help your people understand how their role contributes to a greater whole by sharing customer stories that demonstrate the impact of their work and help create a sense of meaning.
  • Minimize Incivility– Rude and disrespectful behaviors of co-workers or customers who put others down or demean people for mistakes, de-energizes people and impedes thriving.  Don’t tolerate jerks at work.  Fear and anger, often engendered by the experience of incivility, stops the learning process because negative emotions constrain cognitions and behaviors. In contrast, trust and connectivity create a nurturing environment that enables thriving. As a leader you need to model the kind of behaviors that are acceptable and call out uncivil behaviors.
  • Give Performance Feedback – People need to know how they’re doing in order to learn and grow. They need to understand what’s working well – what their strengths are – and how to build upon this.  And when they’re putting people or the company at risk they need to understand how to address their weaknesses. Positive feedback has been found to energize people to seek their full potential. Even constructive feedback, when provided in a supportive way (rather than one that beckons feelings of incivility), garners an interest in learning how to improve.

So if these levers are in place, will all of your employees consistently thrive?  Of course not.

Your people will still be working in the real world.  They will encounter things inside and outside of work that can drain their energy – a new baby not sleeping through the night, struggles with their physical health, challenging relationships and the like – and thwart their appetite for learning and growth.  This is why it’s important to teach people how to manage their own wellbeing and energy-levels and to respect the context each person finds themselves in.

There may also be times – for example during downsizing – when thriving would not be the healthy response for your people.  Instead, as a leader, your priority should be helping your people to cope with what’s unfolding. Then, as they are ready, see if you can find ways to leverage these situations as teachable moments for learning and growth.

What Gretchen’s levers do provide are clear actions leaders can take to create an environment where people are more likely to consistently thrive.  But like any tools, to be effective they need to be used intelligently with context and outcomes in mind.

How can you help create a more thriving workplace?

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