Why Worry about Staff Contentment?

In a healthy job market, there is a natural staff turnover. People leave to seek other opportunities or leave a work situation that they don’t like. New staff members are hired and often bring fresh energy/new ideas into the team. With a bad job market, employees tend to stay in their jobs. They are hesitant to leave because they don’t have another place to go to or are uncertain about a potential employer.

This workforce “stability” may be seen as a positive to an organization … a reduction in business overhead (recruitment & training) … but what about those employees that should have left? What impact do they have on a business?

It is a rare individual who will continue to present a 110% attitude when they are unhappy with their job or their life situation. In the Winter 2011 MIT/Sloan Business Review, Stephanie Pane Haden & Jack Cooke, both of Texas A&M University, noted,

“While turnover associated with low morale may not be as likely during uncertain economic times, productivity and performance issues should command executives’ attention. There is still debate over whether a happy worker is always a productive worker, but researchers and businesspeople alike are likely to agree that low morale will not help boost productivity or improve performance. … Low morale stifles “going-the-extra-mile” behavior … Over time, a decline in organizational citizenship behavior can translate into an unhealthy cultural shift that erodes the business’s overall competitiveness.”

What should an employer do? No one wants to offer poor performers monetary incentives to do the job they were hired to do originally.

Two professors, Gretchen Spreitzer (University of Michigan) and Christine Porath (Georgetown University), writing in the Jan/Feb 2012 Harvard Business Review, (HBR) suggest that employers should look toward the concept of “thriving” to re-energize their workforce. A “thriving” workforce is

“one in which employees are not just satisfied and productive but also engaged in creating the future—the company’s and their own. Thriving employees have a bit of an edge—they are highly energized—but they know how to avoid burnout.

Across industries and job types, we found that people who fit our description of thriving demonstrated 16% better overall performance (as reported by their managers) and 125% less burnout (self-reported) than their peers. They were 32% more committed to the organization and 46% more satisfied with their jobs. They also missed much less work and reported significantly fewer doctor visits, which meant health care savings and less lost time for the company.”

Thriving, as used by these authors, is comprised of two components, vitality and learning. “Vitality” is the “sense of being alive, passionate, and excited. … Companies generate vitality by giving people the sense that what they do on a daily basis makes a difference.” The other component is “Learning”. Learning builds confidence and status. Learning also feeds a cycle of growth potential and more learning.

Individually, these components can be effective motivators short term, but unsupported by passion, learning can lead to burnout and job dissatisfaction. Similarly, passion/vitality, without the opportunity to grow or to make a difference, can quickly disappear.

These two components, vitality and learning, together build employees who deliver results and find ways to grow. The research cited in the HBR article included a cross-industry population of more than 1200 white- and blue-collar workers. It showed that

“people who were high energy and high learning were 21% more effective as leaders than those who were only high energy. The outcomes on one measure in particular — health — were even more extreme. Those who were high energy and low learning were 54% worse when it came to health than those who were high in both.”

How can employers help their teams thrive? The HBR authors suggest:

  • Provide Decision-Making Discretion
  • Sharing Information
  • Minimizing Incivility
  • Offering Performance Feedback

“The four mechanisms that help employees thrive don’t require enormous efforts or investments. What they do require is leaders who are open to empowering employees and who set the tone. As we noted earlier, each mechanism provides a different angle necessary for thriving. You can’t choose one or two from the menu; the mechanisms reinforce one another.”

Thriving is a valuable characteristic for organizations to encourage, but it is also something important to individuals. How can individuals improve their own “thriving” at work?

  • Take a break [from work in your work day]
  • Craft your own work to be more meaningful
  • Look for opportunities to innovate and learn
  • Invest in relationships that energize you
  • Recognize that thriving can spill over outside the office

To learn more about the concept of “thriving”, read the the Spreitzer /Porath article in the January/February issue of the Harvard Business Review or their research paper found in the October 2011 issue of the Journal of Organizational Behavior


Is Morale Irrelevant?” Stephanie Pane Haden and Jack Cooke, MIT Sloan ReviewDecember 21, 2011


“Creating Sustainable Performance” by Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath, Harvard Business Review – Jan/Feb 2012


Thriving at Work: Toward its Measurement, Construct Validation, and Theoretical Refinement” Christine L. Porath, & Gretchen M. Spreitzer, Cristina B. Gibson, & Flannery G. Garnett. (2011) . Journal of Organizational Behavior. In press, 10/2011



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