Creating sustainable performance

When the economy's in terrible shape, when any of us is lucky to have a job-let alone one that's financially and intellectually rewarding—worrying about whether or not your employees are happy might seem a little over the top. But in our research into what makes for a consistently high-performing workforce, we've found good reason to care: Happy employees produce more than unhappy ones over the long term. They routinely show up at work, they're less likely to quit, they go above and beyond the call of duty, and they attract people who are just as committed to the job. Moreover, they're not sprinters; they're more like marathon runners, in it for the long haul.


So what does it mean to be happy in your job? It’s not about contentment, which connotes a degree of complacency. When we and our research partners at the Ross School of Business’s Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship started looking into the factors involved in sustainable individual and organizational performance, we found a better word: thriving. We think of a thriving workforce as 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 percent better overall performance (as reported by their managers) and 125 percent less burnout (selfreported) than their peers. They were 32 percent more committed to the organization and 46 percent 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.

We’ve identified two components of thriving. The first is vitality: the sense of being alive, passionate, and excited. Employees who experience vitality spark energy in themselves and others. Companies generate vitality by giving people the sense that what they do on a daily basis makes a difference.

The second component is learning: the growth that comes from gaining new knowledge and skills. Learning can bestow a technical advantage and status as an expert. Learning can also set in motion a virtuous cycle: People who are developing their abilities are likely to believe in their potential for further growth.

The two qualities work in concert; one without the other is unlikely to be sustainable and may even damage performance. Learning, for instance, creates momentum for a time, but without passion it can lead to burnout. What will I do with what I’ve learned? Why should I stick with this job? Vitality alone—even when you love the kudos you get for delivering results—can be deadening: When the work doesn’t give you opportunities to learn, it’s just the same thing over and over again.

The combination of vitality and learning leads to employees who deliver results and find ways to grow. Their work is rewarding not just because they successfully perform what’s expected of them today but also because they have a sense of where they and the company are headed. In short, they are thriving, and the energy they create is contagious.

Some employees thrive no matter the context. They naturally build vitality and learning into their jobs, and they inspire the people around them. A smart hiring manager will look for those people. But most employees are influenced by their environment. Even those predisposed to flourish can fold under pressure.