Business Psychology

Article No. 372
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Employee Flourishing

Research discovers a new way to promote employee flourishing.

When a gardener steps out to check the vegetables, he's looking for two things. First, he's checking to see what is ripe and needs to be harvested, and second, he's checking the plants to see if they're flourishing. Flourishing plants produce delicious food.

When a business owner steps out of her office, she's checking the product to make sure it's appealing and ready for sale, but she's also checking the employees to see if they're flourishing. Just like in a garden, flourishing employees produce desirable products and positive experiences for customers. Customers notice flourishing employees, and they notice when employees aren't flourishing. Flourishing is good for business, and owners have it in mind when they budget expenses for health insurance, paid vacation leave, and sick leave.

Amy Colbert from the University of Iowa studies flourishing in business, and she believes that positive interpersonal relationships at work contribute to flourishing. She would like to demonstrate it and to broaden and deepen our understanding of the role positive workplace relationships play in employees' lives. In her most recent effort, she created a questionnaire to measure it. She interviewed 287 employed adults and let them describe what they experienced. She found six relationship functions, three she was expecting and three she wasn't.

The first three functions include 1) task assistance - help getting work done by answering questions, providing feedback, or assisting with a specific task, 2) career advancement - help to advance careers by providing advice, access to contacts, and other career-related resources, and 3) emotional support - help coping with stress by listening and responding in supportive ways. These she expected to find. The second three include 4) friendship - becoming a friend or companion, 5) personal growth - help with growing and developing as a human being, and 6) giving to others - relationships that provide the opportunity to assist, mentor, support, or care for another person. These she did not expect.

Next, Colbert used her questionnaire to look for specific connections between relationship functions and varying aspects of employee flourishing. In this effort, 151 pairs (people in relationships) returned her surveys. Overall, she found she was right. Strong, positive relationships at work made a substantial contribution to flourishing. More specifically, she learned that task assistance was most important for job satisfaction. Giving to others was most important for experiencing work as meaningful. Friendship was most important for positive emotions at work, and personal growth had the strongest impact on life satisfaction. Of these, giving to others stood out, and it prompted her to think further about this function.

Strong work relationships are mutually beneficial. Each person receives task assistance and gives it, receives emotional support and provides it, and receives career assistance and gives it. When mutuality is absent, the relationship is unbalanced. One person receives but gives nothing in return. It is a sure recipe for resentment. Colbert's research is the first to capture this feature of work relationships, and, for her, it raises a caution.

If business success is what we want, if flourishing employees are an integral part of business success, and if strong work relationships are important to promote employee flourishing, then employment policies to promote strong relationships are good for business, but Colbert notes with some alarm that some businesses create policies that force employees to compete with one another, and that's a sure way to prevent employee giving. Other businesses fail to establish employee support programs that would promote employee giving to one another and, thus, strong relationships. Both, she says, are mistakes.

Employment policies should promote strong work relationships. It's just good business.

Reference: Colbert, Amy E., Joyce Bono, and Radostina Purvanova (2016) Flourishing Via Workplace Relationships: Moving Beyond Instrumental Support. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 59, No. 4, 1199-1223.

© Management Resources

Keywords: work relationships, flourishing, employee relations, employee giving
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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