Why thriving is the new imperative

Culture  Leadership
19 July, 2022

Shifting from “engagement” to “thriving” can be a game-changer for businesses in the post-Covid era.

While many companies have been focused on employee engagement, we need to now consider a shift towards thriving. I recently read about Microsoft making this change, which sparked my interest to explore the concept more deeply.

An article by Microsoft leadership, published in the Harvard Business Review, states the following: 

One thing is clear: None of us are the same people today as we were prior to 2020. So, as our employees change, the ways we can best empower them need to evolve, too. 

One way to do so is to bring our attention to thriving, a state in which people feel passionate about their work and believe that they can adapt, evolve and transform – even during times of uncertainty. Thriving employees feel positive about their present and hopeful about their future.

Microsoft now defines thriving as “to be energized and empowered to do meaningful work”, with a sense of purpose as the anchor. Raising the bar from engagement, this concept is centred around fulfilling employees at a deeper, more fundamental level: 

Our focus on thriving isn’t just about recovering from the impact of the pandemic or matching pre-Covid employee sentiment scores. It’s about coming out the other side and doing even better.

This week, my message focuses on how organizations can help employees thrive in a post-pandemic landscape. How can you increase motivation, fulfilment and commitment to the organisation – all within the context of evolving work models?

Thriving employees show up, stay engaged and go the extra mile. They bring their best self to the workplace, brimming with energy and new ideas.

Thriving also functions as an antidote to languishing, a topic I wrote about last year. The pandemic years created a sense of stagnation and loss, which continues to affect many people. Joy, energy and purposefulness, which form the core of thriving, can help us refocus and find fresh enthusiasm.

The dangers of un-thriving

A study by Gallup found that engaged but not thriving employees are more vulnerable and at risk of various wellbeing- and productivity-related issues. As their report observes:

Comparing employees who are engaged but not thriving with those who are engaged and thriving, those in the former group report the following risks:

  • 61% higher likelihood of burnout often or always
  • 48% higher likelihood of daily stress
  • 66% higher likelihood of daily worry
  • double the rate of daily sadness and anger

Thriving employees have 53% fewer missed days due to health issues. Suffering and struggling employees have a substantially higher disease burden due to diagnoses of depression and anxiety, among others. 

Organisations where employees are engaged but not thriving are likely to struggle in this new era of work. The impact of un-thriving can be felt across the board, from absenteeism and health challenges to a lack of emotional commitment towards the company.

Creating the right conditions for thriving 

Here are five recommendations to help you move beyond employee engagement and open the door to thriving.

1. Re-establish commitment.

During the pandemic, several organisations took unprecedented steps, from widespread layoffs to severe cost-cutting measures. These measures have left a psychologically bitter taste amongst employees, leading to continued anxiety and disillusionment. Team members who value loyalty and commitment (i.e., your most precious assets!) are likely to be deeply affected.

In order to move forward with positivity and stability, it’s important for leaders to clear the air and start re-building trust. It’s worth taking the time to explain why the business took certain extreme steps, and how you arrived at those (no doubt) difficult decisions. In the absence of honest explanations, employees will fill in the gaps themselves, usually in ways that are detrimental to the organisation.

An HBR article on this topic emphasizes the importance of transparency when re-establishing commitment:

As one of our research subjects so eloquently said, “Engage everyone by having leadership down through the ranks of personnel share what challenges they faced personally and professionally.” This organizational action says, “We’re all in this together.” It also reinforces values of empathy and caring so that these values…serve as guideposts for your employees. 

2. Harness culture as an enabler.

A deep dive into employee responses led Microsoft to an interesting finding: the way in which thriving vs. non-thriving employees talk about company culture is startlingly different. Those who are thriving speak of an open environment where teamwork is valued and autonomy is supported. On the flipside, those who aren’t thriving refer to a siloed, bureaucratic environment in which they feel disempowered and overlooked. 

Hence, an empowering culture is key to thriving. When employees feel they have agency and the ability to speak frankly in uncomfortable environments, a sense of ownership is created. When the contributions of each team member are valued and recognised, motivation is the natural result.

Another culture-centric key is inclusion: feelings of belonging fuel thriving. This means values like Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging should ideally be woven into the fabric of the company’s cultural approach, rather than remaining mere buzzwords.

3. Guard against excessive collaboration.

Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. While collaboration is essential for team members to thrive, it should be deployed in a measured way. Excessive collaboration can increase thriving in the short term – but it could take a toll on work-life effectiveness.

When Microsoft zeroed in on employees who scored high both on “thriving” and “work-life balance” indicators, they found that:

…those with the best of both worlds had five fewer hours in their workweek span, five fewer collaboration hours, three more focus hours, and 17 fewer employees in their internal network size. This reinforces that…intense collaboration can impact work-life balance, and leaders and employees alike should guard against that intensity becoming 24/7.

4. Consider individualized work arrangements.

The feasibility of this suggestion will vary from function to function, company to company, industry to industry. That said, customized work arrangements can play a critical role in thriving – so the idea certainly merits serious consideration.

Right now, many employees are expending a huge amount of energy trying to negotiate the post-pandemic workplace. After long stretches of WFH, several team members who have returned to the office are feeling stressed and wondering if they made the right decision by coming back. Some are seeking greater flexibility in their schedules, others want to work out of a different location. Yet others are hungry for new challenges and want the freedom to craft their role accordingly.

Tailoring work arrangements to better suit your employees’ priorities and values will free up their time and energy for meaningful work. Research shows that while such arrangements are logistically tricky, they drive huge gains on both sides: team members are happier and more fulfilled, while organisations enjoy enhanced productivity and reduced absenteeism. Even small adjustments can reap big rewards, especially in employees’ perceptions of organisational support.

5. Foster high-thrivers.

Leaders need to play an active role in creating a workplace where employees can thrive. Yet, those in leadership positions themselves are often distracted and reactive, operating from a place of narrow anxiety rather than expansive wellbeing. In order to amplify energy and passion through the ranks, it’s crucial to nurture numerous “high-thriving” leaders. As Renee Moorefield, an expert on thriving and CEO of WisdomWorks, explains: 

When we internally feel well-resourced, we naturally bring more energy, adaptability, emotional balance, optimism, and wisdom to situations and relationships in our lives and work.

This means crafting leadership development strategies that are deeply connected to purpose, inspiration and wellbeing. Organisations will need to re-examine their approach to cultivating future leaders in the months to come, possibly with a view to introducing new approaches and systems that enable a more vibrant workplace.

As we emerge from the Covid years, it will be all too easy for businesses to default to old ways and norms. But that would be a woefully ineffective strategy. The fact is that the pandemic has brought lasting changes, especially with regards to employee fulfilment and motivation. People’s perceptions of and expectations from work have evolved, and companies that want to retain their most talented team members will need to keep up. Thriving employees translate to thriving businesses – it’s really as simple, and as difficult, as that.


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