Create Sustainable Performance: How Leaders Can Help Employees and the Organization Thrive

by Christine Porath

Over the last seven years, Gretchen Spreitzer and I have been studying “thriving” (with colleagues), defined as “the joint experience of vitality and learning.” When thriving, employees are not stagnating or languishing, but instead are growing and energized in their work.

We’ve surveyed 1,200 white- and blue-collar employees in an array of industries, including higher education, health care, financial services, consulting, insurance, maritime, energy, and manufacturing. We collected information from employees and bosses, as well as retention rates, health, burnout, overall job performance, and organizational citizenship behaviors.

Across industries and types of job, we found that people who are 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. Thriving employees also tend to be healthier, reporting fewer physical or somatic complaints, far fewer doctor visits, and less burnout or strain, which translates into reduced health care costs. They also missed 74% less days of work. The better health and reduced propensity to burn out enables thriving employees to sustain their performance over time. And thriving’s impact on these outcomes extends substantially beyond the effects of other factors like job satisfaction or organizational commitment.

We also found that thriving is particularly important for leaders’ effectiveness. In a study of executives across different industries, thriving leaders are rated 17% higher by their subordinates as more effective than leaders who report lower levels of thriving. When thriving, leaders’ inherent energy is contagious to those they lead.

Leaders have the power to shape the culture and context. They can jump-start a culture that encourages employees to thrive. Our research has uncovered four mechanisms that facilitate thriving:

  1. providing decision-making discretion,
  2. sharing information,
  3. minimizing incivility, and
  4. offering performance feedback.

The mechanisms often overlap. For example, if you let people make decisions but give them incomplete information, or respond rudely, they won’t thrive.

In one study focusing on just these four mechanisms, thriving across six organizations (representing diverse industries) increased 42%.

1. Providing decision-making discretion. All employees, at every level, are energized by the ability to make decisions that affect their work. Decision-making discretion encourages thriving through enabling a greater sense of control and choice about what to do at work and how to do it. People feel energized when they have choices, and more opportunities for learning.

2. Sharing information about the organization and its strategy. Broad information sharing, whether information about strategic direction, organizational performance, and competitors, also enhances thriving. People not only have the ability to better understand the meaning of their work, but can also contribute more effectively to the organization’s goals.

3. Minimizing incivility. Incivility is defined as “the prevalence of the exchange of seemingly inconsequential inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional norms of workplace conduct.” The costs of incivility are great. In research with Christine Pearson, we found that:

  • 48% intentionally decreased work effort
  • 47% intentionally decreased time at work
  • 38% intentionally decreased work quality
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident
  • 66% said their performance declined
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined
  • 12% said they exited the organization as a result of their uncivil treatment

When people are exposed to incivility, vitality wanes. In the face of incivility, they are more likely to narrow their focus to the task at hand, avoiding risks that offer opportunities to learn. A positive, respectful climate spurs positive energy to contribute to the organization; an uncivil environment grates on people, depleting energy and reducing their propensity to take risks, which may enhance learning.


Create Sustainable Performance: How Leaders Can Help Employees and the Organization Thrive

Offering performance feedback. Feedback creates opportunities for learning and the energy so critical for thriving. By resolving feelings of uncertainty, feedback allows people to more accurately and easily appraise themselves, enabling them to see progress, and reducing individual stress– a deterrent to thriving. Because feedback keeps people’s work-related activities directed toward desired personal and organizational goals, it enables thriving.

There are numerous ways that leaders can facilitate employee thriving. Many of these initiatives require little resources, relatively speaking. The key is to start. Some organizations started with very small steps.

Thriving is a vital force for enabling healthy, high performing, engaged employees. Our research shows that thriving employees are also less susceptible to stress and burnout. Fostering an environment where employees are more apt to thrive provides other competitive advantages, including retaining talent. To attract and retain talent, organizations need to craft an environment where employees can thrive. According to a Gallup study, 71% of employees see themselves as disengaged; less than 20% of employees see themselves as flourishing in their work. Employees want a job that enables them to thrive.

Our hope is that leaders (and individuals) will work to create organizations that nurture employee vitality and learning, and in doing so, help sustain human performance.

Christine Porath, PhD, Professor, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University

Porath_Christine-webChristine Porath, PhD is a professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. Among her expertise is organizational culture and behavior, and she has a particular interest in incivility in the workplace and its costs. In fact, she co-authored with Christine Pearson a recently published insightful book, The Cost Of Bad Behavior. Also, the current, January, issue of the Harvard Business Review entitled, The Value of Happiness, How Employee Well-Being Drives Profits, includes a feature article by Christine and Gretchen Spreitzer, Creating Sustainable Performance , i.e., if you give your employees the chance to learn and grow, they’ll thrive-and so will your organization.

I have had the opportunity to discuss with Christine her research and ideas at length and I totally agree with her beliefs. In fact, I am sure my clients and other readers agree, as well, and I’m sure her students gain important insights.

Christine in a graduate of Holy Cross College, where she was a two sport athlete, a rarity these days. She played varsity soccer and basketball. She obtained her PhD in Business Administration from Kenan-Flagler, University of North Carolina.