How Do Positive Leaders Enable People to Thrive at Work?

05/19/2015 04:54 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

Are your employees thriving at work? Do they show up each day with a spark of energy, passion and excitement about the learning and growth opportunities unfolding? And as a leader how do you keep this spark burning?

The truth is researchers have found only 31% of employees describe themselves as thriving, while the majority, 59% are struggling and 10% are suffering.

"For people to thrive in their work empirical and theoretical research suggests there are two important dimensions that need to come together," said Professor Gretchen Spreizter from the University of Michigan when I interviewed her recently. "One is the feeling of vitality or being very energized in your work. The other is to feel like you're learning or growing or getting better at what you're doing."

"When people are thriving at work studies suggest they tend to be more creative, more persistent and motivated and less likely to get burned out. They're also more likely to report high levels of wellbeing," explained Gretchen. "Thriving employees not only have more positive individual outcomes, but they also help their organizations better achieve their goals."

While employees can change their own behavior to craft more meaning, seek out learning opportunities, invest in high-quality connections, and manage their energy at work, Gretchen suggests the most impactful seed is for leaders to craft organizational practices that build autonomy, competence, and belongingness. In her new book "How To Be A Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact" she suggests there are four ways leaders can achieve this:

  • Share Information - When employees have access to more information about where the organization is going in the future and about business plans or strategy, competitors, and industry, they develop stronger feelings of thriving in their work. The new knowledge energizes them with a sense that they are learning, growing, and developing. In particular, try to help your people understand how their role contributes to a greater whole by sharing customer stories that demonstrate the impact of their work and help create a sense of meaning. For example, patients who benefit from Medtronic's health-care devices visit the organization's quarterly meetings to share their appreciation.
  • Provide Decision-Making Discretion - Your employees are more likely to thrive when empowered to make decisions that affect their work. This sense of autonomy at work fuels their vitality and growth. For example, if you have a meal at Zingerman's that is less than satisfactory, employees are empowered to act in the moment to ensure that that guest leaves delighted with the service. Providing discretion not only sparks energy when employees feel valued for their ideas, but also taps into learning because employees are not told what to do and how to do it. Instead, they are encouraged to figure out the best way to get the job done.

  • Minimizing Incivility - Rude and disrespectful behaviors of co-workers or customers who put others down or demean people for mistakes, impedes thriving. Fear and anger, often engendered by the experience of incivility, stops the learning process because negative emotions constrain cognitions and behaviors. In contrast, trust and connectivity create a nurturing environment that enables thriving. As a leader you need to model the kind of behaviors that are acceptable and call out uncivil behaviors.

  • Offering Performance Feedback - providing two-way, open, frequent, feedback creates opportunities for learning among your employees. Positive feedback has been found to energize people to seek their full potential. Even constructive feedback, when provided in a supportive way (rather than one that beckons feelings of incivility), garners an interest in learning how to improve.

As a leader what are you doing to help your employees thrive?

For more tested, practical examples you can apply grab a copy of to "How To Be A Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact."