Enable Thriving at Work

Gretchen M. Spreitzer
Gretchen M. Spreitzer,
Keith E. and Valerie J. Alessi Professor of Business Administration,
Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan

Contributed by Gretchen M. Spreitzer, Keith E. and Valerie J. Alessi, Professor of Business Administration at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and a core faculty member of the Center for Effective Organizations

Excerpted from Gretchen M. Spreitzer’s and Christine Porath’s chapter in Spreitzer’s recent book (co-edited with Jane Dutton), How to Be a Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact

Reflect on a time when you felt most alive at work. What were you doing? Why does the experience stand out? More than likely, it was an experience marked not only by vitality but also by learning and growth – what we term “thriving at work.” People experience growth and momentum marked by a sense of vitality while thriving at work, literally the feeling of energy, passion, and excitement – a spark, and improvement.[1]  In this chapter, we draw on the growing body of evidence to demonstrate why individuals and organizations should care about thriving. We also highlight strategies for individuals and leaders to enable more thriving at work.

Why Care? The Value of Thriving at Work

Organizations seek thriving employees.  They report less burnout,[2] because the way they work generates, rather than depletes, resources.[3]  In a thriving state, people exhibit better health, including fewer days of missed work and fewer visits to the doctor.[4]  When people are thriving at work, they report more job satisfaction and organizational commitment.[5]  Thriving individuals are apt to have a learning orientation — experimenting with new ideas to propel their own learning.  Thriving employees take initiative in developing their careers.  Their supervisors rate them as high performers.  And thriving employees exhibit more innovative work behavior, generating creative ideas, championing new ideas, and seeking out new ways of working.

Why do thriving employees achieve such positive outcomes?  The vitality and learning dimensions suggest several mechanisms. First, the strong sense of feeling energized helps employees have the capacity to initiate proactive behaviors and persist amidst daily challenges without burning out.[6]  Second, the learning dimension helps individuals see that they are making progress and on a positive trajectory. They feel more confident that they will achieve positive outcomes. Third, the original thriving framework suggests these individuals do not accept their work environment as determined by external forces. Instead, they believe in co-creating their work environment to nurture more thriving.  Through the process of co-creation, thriving employees create resources, including meaning, positive affect, high quality connections, and knowledge, to enable continued thriving over time.[7] Together these mechanisms provide the ingredients for sustained performance.

What Can I Do To Enhance My Own Thriving?

We offer four individual strategies to enable thriving at work. They are behavioral strategies anyone can engage in to kick-start their own thriving.  Each of these strategies develops one of the key resources mentioned above as being co-created by thriving employees.  While the four strategies can be practiced in a piecemeal fashion, they are more potent if undertaken together.

Strategy 1: Craft your work to be more meaningful.  Research suggests meaning is a key renewable resource to fuel thriving.[8]  Having meaning energizes by creating purpose in one’s work life, and with meaning, people care about their work.[9]  A study of social service employees found those who reported more meaning in their work experienced more thriving.[10]  Meaning boosts thriving by increasing focus, such as in getting work done, and in exploration behaviors, such as trying new things. In a study of high tech workers, those who created more meaning in their work through reflection on how they make a difference experienced more vitality – one of the two dimensions of thriving at work.[11]  Job crafting, a work redesign that individuals engage in to make work more fulfilling, may be a tool to generate more meaning at work.

Strategy 2:  Look for opportunities to innovate.  Knowledge is a second resource that fuels thriving. It builds feelings of competence, enabling vitality and learning. In that same study of high-tech workers, those who created opportunities for gaining new knowledge in their work, through setting goals or seeking feedback, possessed more vitality.  The power of this strategy is further supported by self-determination theory, which articulates how feelings of competence enable vitality and growth at work.[12] “Mindful engagement” theory adds insight in pairing experimenting with new behaviors with periods of reflection, to ensure learning from those experiences.[13]

Strategy 3: Invest in relationships that energize.  Relationships are a third resource that fuel thriving.  Positive connections at work aid motivation, engagement, and well-being. Social networks also enable learning, as they are the conduits for harnessing information and knowledge, resulting in thriving and performance. High quality relationships are energizing.  High-tech workers who invested in their relationships by making a colleague happy or showing gratitude experienced greater vitality.  De-energizing relationships, on the other hand, take a tremendous toll on people. They have four times the negative effect as energizing relationships do.[14] To increase thriving, be mindful of building high quality relationships with energizers, and rejuvenating or disconnecting from de-energizing relationships.

Strategy 4: Take care of your health through energy management.  Positive affect is a fourth resource which can be increased through energy management.[15]  These strategies draw on robust research that demonstrates how exercise and movement (cardiovascular and strength-training), nutrition (balanced combinations of carbohydrates, proteins, and fat) and sleep (7-8 hours per night) enhance positive moods during the workday.  Our research also demonstrates the importance of these strategies for individuals who are seeking recovery when fatigued.  The energy audit is one tool individuals can use to take a pulse on their energy and develop strategies for sustaining energy.[16]

Want to learn more about thriving? Curious about how your organization can enable employees to thrive or interested in reading a real life case study on Zingerman’s, a world-famous community of businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan? Go to:  http://positiveorgs.bus.umich.edu/books/how-to-be-a-positive-leader-small-actions-big-impact-2/


[1] G. Spreitzer, K. Sutcliffe, J. Dutton, S. Sonenshein, and A. Grant, “A Socially Embedded Model of Thriving at Work,” Organization Science 16- 5 (2005): 537-549.
[2] C. Porath, G. Spreitzer, C. Gibson, and F. Garnett, “Thriving at Work:  Toward Its Measurement, Construct Validation, and Theoretical Refinement,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 33- 2 (2012): 250-271.
[3] R. Quinn, G.M. Spreitzer, and C.F. Lam, “A Comprehensive Review and Integrative Framework of Energy at Work,” Academy of Management Annals (2012): 337-396.
[4] G. Spreitzer, and C. Porath, “Creating Sustainable Performance,” Harvard Business Review, January-February (2012): 92-99.
[5] Porath and others, “Thriving at Work,” 250-271.
[6] Quinn, Spreitzer, and Lam, “A Comprehensive Review and Integrative Framework of Energy at Work,” 337-396.
[7] G. Spreitzer and others, “A Socially Embedded Model of Thriving at Work,” 537-549.
[8] M. Ford and P. Smith, “Thriving with Social Purpose: An Integrative Approach to the Development of Optimal Human Functioning,” Educational Psychologist 42- 3 (2007): 153-171.
[9] G.M Spreitzer, “Psychological Empowerment in the Workplace:  Dimensions, Measurement, and Validation,” Academy of Management Journal 38- 5 (1995): 1442-1465.
[10] C. Niessen, S. Sonnentag, and F. Sach, “Thriving at Work – A Diary Study,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 33 (2012): 468-487.
[11] C. Fritz, C.F. Lam, and G.M.  Spreitzer, “It’s the Little Things that Matter: An Examination of Knowledge Workers’ Energy Management,” Academy of Management Perspectives 25- 3 (2011): 28-39.
[12] E. L. Deci and R. M. Ryan, Handbook of Self-Determination Research (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press 2002).
[13] S. J. Ashford and D. S. DeRue, “Developing as a Leader: The Power of Mindful Engagement,” Organizational Dynamics 41-2 (2012): 146-154.
[14] A. Parker, A. Gerbasi, and C.L. Porath, “The Effects of De-Energizing Ties in Organizations and How to Manage Them,” Organizational Dynamics 42 (2013): 110-118.
[15] J. Loehr and T.  Schwartz, “The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Renewal” (New York: Free Press, 2003).
[16] G. Spreitzer and T. Grant, “Helping Students Manage Their Energy: Taking Their Pulse with the Energy Audit,” Journal of Management Education 36- 2(2012): 239-263.f