Happy Employees… What the Research Shows

Earlier I promised to share some of the research emerging on the topic of happy employees and productivity. There are a surprisingly large number of studies in this area, but one of the more intriguing ones to cross my radar screen is highlighted in the current issue of Harvard Business Review in the article, “Creating Sustainable Performance.” Professors Gretchen Spreitzer (University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business) and Christine Porath (Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business) describe how they spent seven years researching “the nature of thriving in the workplace and the factors that enhance or inhibit it.”

Their number one conclusion validated the importance of training and professional development. “If you give your employees the chance to learn and grow, they’ll thrive—and so will your organization,” write Spreitzer and Porath. They also note, “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 marathoner runners, in it for the long haul.”

In seeking to understand what makes certain workforces sustainable, or profitably growing well into the future, the word “thriving” was chosen by the professors to capture the essence of this elusive concept. In their words, “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 all industries and job types, we found that people who fit our description of thriving demonstrated 16% better overall performance (as reported by their managers) than their peers. They were 32% more committed to the organization and 46% more satisfied with their jobs. They also missed less work and reported significantly fewer doctor visits, which meant health care savings and less lost time for the company.”

This is all very interesting, but what leads employees to truly thrive?

The researchers identified two key components: vitality–or a sense of passion for their work–and learning; the growth that comes from gaining new knowledge and skills. The two qualities work in concert according to the study. “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.”

Spreitzer and Porath interviewed more than 1,200 white- and blue-collar workers in an array of industries and found that management can do four things to promote a culture of vitality and learning: (1) provide decision-making discretion, (2) share information, (3) minimize incivility and (4) offer performance feed back. I’ll take a closer look at each of these factors in my remaining posts in this series on employee happiness.

Next post: If you do nothing, you’ll make no mistakes!