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Creating a Positive Spiral between Agentic Behaviors and Resources

10/5/2006 --

Work organizations that cultivate feelings of thriving help to foster their employees' growth, development and health.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—When people work in environments that encourage them to thrive, they are able to pursue growth and development, say researchers at the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

The researchers contend that people are aware of their own senses of vitality and learning—i.e., thriving—at work and can make changes based on these self-assessments.

"Thriving is a desirable experience that allows individuals to gauge whether what they are doing in the workplace and how they are doing it is helping them to develop in a positive direction," says Gretchen Spreitzer, Ross School professor of management and organizations. "Thus, thriving serves an adaptive function that helps individuals navigate and change their work contexts to promote their own development."

In an article that appeared in Organization Science, Spreitzer and colleagues Kathleen Sutcliffe, Jane Dutton, Scott Sonenshein and Adam Grant present a socially embedded model of thriving at work that explores how social structure and the resources produced in performing work jointly enable thriving.

Their view supports the idea that work organizations are consequential for individuals' growth, development and health through the cultivation of thriving. It also contributes to the growing body of research in positive organizational scholarship, which focuses on how work organizations can contribute to people's capability-building and well-being.

Traditionally, firms have taken a regulatory approach to employee development, utilizing performance appraisals, feedback or incentive systems to help individuals adapt inside business organizations. By doing so, companies inadvertently may have overlooked employees' own internal capabilities for gauging progress in their development at work.

According to the researchers' model, when individuals are placed in work contexts characterized by decision-making discretion, broad information sharing and a climate of trust and respect, they are more likely to experience work as self-determined, and are more apt to engage in active, purposeful—i.e., "agentic"—behaviors that contribute to thriving.

"Self-determination is the key mechanism for how context affects behavior," says Sutcliffe, Ross School professor of management and organizations and associate dean for faculty development and research. "It explains why individuals pursue conditions that foster their own growth and development."

Given the right work context, people engage in three key agentic work behaviors—task focus, exploration and heedful relating. Task focus describes the degree to which individuals concentrate on meeting their assigned responsibilities at work in a satisfactory manner. Exploration focuses on engaging in experimenting, risk taking, discovery and innovative behaviors that help people stretch and grow in new directions. Heedful relating means individuals act in ways that demonstrate they understand how their own jobs fit with the jobs of others to accomplish the goals of the system.

When people act agentically, they produce resources in the doing of their work, the researchers say. These resources include new knowledge or greater understanding, positive meaning associated with the purpose and significance inherent in work, positive feelings experienced in performing work, and high-quality connections or bonds between individuals.

"Our model of thriving at work suggests that a type of positive spiral exists between agentic work behaviors and the resources created in the doing of work," says Dutton, Ross School professor of management and organizations, the William Russell Kelly Professor of Business Administration and professor of psychology. "The resources promoted by agentic work behaviors serve to further fuel these agentic work behaviors, and thus help to sustain thriving."

Written by Claudia Capos

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat
Phone: (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847