Humans in the VUCA world
VUCA is an acronym that has recently found its way into the work lexicon. The components it refers to – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – are words that have been variously used to describe the modern work environment. In the ‘VUCA world,’ traditional business tools of processes, prediction, planning and strategy are proving less and less useful. Instead, the only certainty we can prepare for are the uncertainty and permanent change. And the only certainty to rely on, in order to face the uncertainty are the human beings, the men and women at work, the “intangible assets”. In this situation, Are your employees fully engaged in what they do? Is your company a motivating place to work? Do people feel good about your organisation? Today, more than ever, organisations explicitly placing the human in the centre have a higher competitive advantage than those who do not.
Are positivity and performance compatible?
What role does happiness play at work? Is this a productive, or rather a completely unimportant factor, as far as the bottom line is concerned? Does happiness enable performance or does it impede one’s concentration on work tasks? Well, given that we spend on average 80,000 hours of our lives at work, dismissing the way we feel during them seems counter-intuitive. Yet, being in a great mood (think holidays or party) is not necessarily perceived as the most productive state. What does happiness, this fluffy-pinky concept, has to do in the hard-numbered world of work? After all, there are plenty of successful businesses that succeed without everyone feeling a sense of well-being and fulfilment. Is there something else we should take into account when capturing human performance? How about motivation and engagement of the salaries?
These are precisely the questions we set out to answer when launching the Positivity at Work study in collaboration with the journal of Positive Psychology and Petit Bamboo – to discover the intricate relationships between well-being, engagement and performance in France, to capture all the main variables in play and their relative importance for human performance and to understand differences between different sectors of activity, genders and generations.
Nearly 1700 people took part in the detailed survey (the most comprehensive one to our current knowledge) to face the myriad of questions about themselves, their lives, their work, their boss and the way they feel. These questions were collected using a scientifically sound questionnaire, with all sub-scales achieving good validity and reliability, which means we can trust the conclusions. We have analysed the questionnaire using statistical procedures, such as factor analysis, regression and mathematical modelling. And we are delighted to present here the results, some of these expected, and others – somewhat surprising.
Well, it turned out that positivity and performance are indeed compatible. As we suspected, l’engagement emerged as the principal psychological predictive factor of efficiency and performance at work. Well-being, on the other hand, does not strongly predict superior performance on its own, but it needs to compliment the engagement to enable optimal human functioning in the longer term. In our data, the contribution of engagement to performance was much stronger than that of well-being. Taken together, however, they predicted 25% of variance, which is quite substantial in psychological terms. Our results are consistent with the statistical data from over 9000 UK employees shows that whilst engagement on its own predicts a solid proportion of work performance, adding engagement and well-being predicts twice as much. What this means is that the culminative force of having both well-being and engagement high surpasses the individual impact of either. Thus, not an “either, or “argument, but rather the one revolving around “and”, showing how both happiness and engagement appear to be responsible for the variability in the productivity of the corporations. Acting on both predictors is what can enable us to increase humanly sustainable performance in today’s competitive business environment.
Contrary to many international estimations, such as the famous conclusions of the Gallup Engagement Survey, estimating engagement in France at 9% only, our data suggests that 36.5% of French working people say they feel engaged (either every day or a few days per week), which is followed by followed by another 49.5% of moderately engaged (once a week to a few times per month) and 14% not engaged (once a month and rarer). The difference in findings may be explained by the inclusion of the self-employed in our sample, who increase the overall engagements levels quite substantially.
Figure 1: Engagement frequency in France
When it comes to well-being at work, 33% of people are happy/satisfied with their work, 36% are neutral or moderately happy, and the remaining third – dissatisfied.
For both engagement and work well-being, there are dramatic differences between sectors of activity. The most engaged, satisfied and performant of all and by very far are the independents, regardless of the sphere of activity. They are followed by the salaries in a non-lucrative sector (i.e. charity), though their engagement is higher than well-being. Next are the public servants, though their satisfaction overweighs their engagement, not surprisingly, perhaps. The fourth category are people working in the SMEs up to 100 people. The fifth category are the employees in larger companies (100 + persons) in the private sector.
Lessons to be learnt? If you are wondering about taking the steps into unknown, with all the insecurity and hard work that self-employment brings, chances are that you won’t regret it. You will work a lot more, that’s for sure, but will feel happier and more engaged. When it comes to working in the private sector, smaller is definitely better than bigger – human sized companies allow us to feel more engaged and well.
Finally, we can say that business-focused engagement is more important for the organisation, but in some way it is no less important for the employee. There are certainly benefits to employees from being committed to their work and feeling enthusiastic about the organisation that they work for, but these benefits don’t only come from the organisation, but also from ourselves. Human beings are achievement-oriented, and feeling that we are doing a good job actually contributes to our overall well-being as well.
The nation’s emotional snapshot – the Energy Index
In addition to the more thinking-based indicators, we measured the emotional energy, to capture how people felt about their work, to take a pulse of the nation at work. The Energy Index provides a snapshot of the present moment. It describes the emotional states an employee typically experiences at work based on two dimensions, pleasure and activation. By indicating the percentage of people in each of the four zones (optimal engagement, comfort, depletion and demotivation), it captures the current emotional climate of the company. Let us have a look at these categories, one by one.
Figure 3 : The French Energy Index
Flourishing is a combination of pleasure and activity. People in this state enjoy what they are doing and are energized by their work. They are satisfied with, passionate about and proud of their work. Their work stimulates them even to the point where they are totally absorbed by what they are doing, experiencing a feeling of flow. At times, they might even feel inspired by what they are doing. 86% of the self-employed feel flourishing at work, whilst less than 43% of the employees in the large companies do.
Comfort is a state of pleasure and limited activation. People in this state are typically quite happy, but not very energised during their work. Perhaps their work is not very challenging or stimulating, does not require them to be very active, or everything is just going as it should. This state is therefore pleasant, but not very conducive for growth.
When we look at the comfort quadrant, it is easy to see why employee happiness is a scary notion for many business leaders. They imagine catering for employee’s every need, from food in the cafeteria to chairs they sit on, imposing a strict 35/39-hours routine and being rewarded with happily chatty colleagues forgetting to work or, worse even, noncompliance and eventual complaining. In fact, this is precisely what may happen if happiness does not co-exist with engagement. The largest proportion of comfort “zoners” comes from large enterprises (14%). Comfort is more often reported by women than men.
Depletion is a state when one is active and energised, but not happy. This situation may emerge when one’s work is too hard or too stressful. It may also develop as a result of workaholism, when one feels an inner compulsion to work very much, to the extent of neglecting their personal life and needs. Depleting work may lead to exhaustion and professional burnout.
It is clear that whilst engagement is the key to enhanced performance, there is a danger of focusing too much on engagement at all cost (i.e. giving everything to the organisation) at the expense of happiness, and thus disturbing the delicate balance of health, mental health and time that is so essential for prolonged optimal functioning. Depletion can lead to burn-out in the long term (though usually not immediately). Most in danger are the public servants (32%) and employees of larger private organisations (29%). Men are more in danger of depletion than women.
Demotivation is a situation when work is not perceived as engaging and does not bring much pleasure. People in this state are typically disengaged from their work, which feels boring and uninspiring. They may also be in the state of burn-out. 15% of employees of larger and 10% of smaller private companies feel completely demotivated (i.e. not engaged, nor happy), whilst not a single self-employed in our sample fell into this category.
Figure 4 : The Energy Index – Across Sector Comparison: (a) Public sector, (b)Self-employed, (c)Employees(<100), (d) Employees (100+)
What do we do? Predictors of engagement and well-being at work
We may wonder what are the precise keys for optimising the engagement and well-being of employees in France, that enable sustainable performance and collective energy?
Our research shows that, once again, contrary to the widespread perception, commitment and well-being at work are largely independent of salary level, but rather depend on the resources inherent to the role played in the company (such as autonomy, competence, good relations with colleagues, etc.), the resources of the environment (such as a climate of trust, the type of leadership and the overall mission of the company) and personal/self resources (such as emotional agility, a positive state of mind and good time management).
This part of the report contains the employee’s perception of their role and job characteristics (autonomy, mastery, relationships, structure, variety and meaning). An optimal level of these job characteristics is important to maintain a high level of well-being and engagement at work. Low scores in this section may help to identify what could be improved in the characteristics of the employees’ jobs for them to enjoy their work more and perform better.
Autonomy is facilitated by flexible work environment, defining the outcome rather than the process (thus giving people the ownership of the process) or letting employees explore the solutions and showing them that the organisation values such explorations. Mastery comes from ensuring a great strengths-job fit and growth opportunities, such as training on the job and cultivating learning culture. Talent mobility, sabbaticals, passion clubs and accelerator experiences are great ways to ensure variety and not getting bored on the job. Role clarity/structure turned out to be one of the strongest direct predictors of performance. The lack of it is also one of the biggest predictors of burnout. Quality relationships between colleagues are also important, and can be facilitated in diverse ways from informal socializing opportunities to establishing reciprocity and appreciation rituals. Finally, two highest predictor of both engagement and well-being from this category in the French workplaces are the mastery (opportunity to use one’s strengths and the right challenges) and the meaning the person finds in their job. Autonomy impacts the well-being highly, but, contrary to our expectations, not the engagement.
Where organizations have far more control is in the provision of organisational resources (climate of trust, leadership, management of proximity, resources and benefits, working conditions, organisational mission). It is the extent to which the employees perceive their work environment as beneficial, positive, and supporting. Positive work environments make it easier for individuals to flourish and to become the best they can be. These beneficial outcomes are often long-lasting and may go beyond the work environment. Environments that fail to satisfy people’s needs are more challenging to work in: they take more energy. Low scores in this section may point to what could be improved in your organization.
The common sense wisdom of “buying” engagement through higher salary and bonuses does not match up with our results. Whilst pay & benefits need to be sufficient to satisfy employees’ needs and must be perceived as fair, bigger annual bonuses would not translate to the better performance the next year. Evidence suggests that delivering smaller, quarterly bonuses may be a better strategy, as it is the frequency of positive boosts that has the longest effect. Furthermore, given the limits to the impact of financial bonuses, on the job benefits and rewards appear to offer a far better motivational value. Establishing a climate of trust, in which every employee knows that things can be brought out into the open and discussed, and fairness considerations are vital is another important driver, as are the quality of leadership and attention of management, environmental conditions (work space, natural light, presence of greenery), social importance (clear mission and vision, communicating company’s history and narrative to ensure pride, and CSR actions beyond compliance and statutory requirements) and congruence between the values of the company and those of the employees. The latter two factors are the most important for engagement and well-being, whilst environmental conditions specifically impact well-being – people find pleasure in comfy chairs and beautiful office design, but don’t hope that this would affect their motivation.
Importantly, there is a cluster of personal resources that an individual brings with him to work: vitality, positive mindset, cognitive flexibility, emotional agility, time management, personal meaning. These dispositions may be helpful in various life situations, their effects are not limited to the work context. At work, a person with a high level of personality resources may find it easier to adapt to difficult organizational environments or may be more likely to change the situation. People with low levels of personal resources may need more beneficial work environment and training to feel and perform well.
Although companies have a lesser role to play here, because these are more personal characteristics, they can provide environmental context that supports the development of these skills. Access to gym, yoga or meditation classes during the breaks would build vitality and emotional agility. The culture that accepts and celebrates errors as a learning opportunity provides conditions for developing positive mindset et cognitive flexibilty. Time competence can also be promoted through training, but also through organizational interventions, such as establishing email rules, taking active steps to reduce the need for email communication or ensuring that employees fully disconnect (and thus recover) during holidays. Vitality and meaning of life are the most important engagement levers from personal resources, though time management has a direct impact on performance.
The Positive Organisational Profile (POP) model and diagnostic allows to group all these levers together and identify the most appropriate keys to optimise employee engagement and well-being, which is likely to lead to extraordinary performance and collective energy. This makes it possible to identify areas of strength as well as specific issues and therefore to choose the most appropriate and suitable interventions.
The key to flourishing at work
What have we learnt from this study that we did not know before? If we have to give one principal key to flourishing at work, this would be MEANING. Not autonomy, not leadership or management, as we so often believe, and definitely not how much we get paid for what we do. Instead, the answer is MEANING, in all different senses of this word. Finding meaning in our work gives us a framework for understanding why we do what we do, why at times we sacrifice our rest and pleasure for the sake of something larger helps us deal with setbacks and preserver in the face of challenges. Friedrich Nietzsche’s “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” springs to mind. When it comes to the workplace, the notion of meaning is multifaceted. It includes social importance (the mission and vision of the organisation and seeing how our organisation contributes to making the world a better place), one’s alignment with this vision, or congruence between our own and organisational values, seeing life as something meaningful and finding meaning in what we do at work on a daily basis.
The search for overall meaning is often described as an existential human need. Looks like it is also an essential condition for flourishing in the VUCA world of work.