Thinking about Thriving

July 30, 2009 / General /

by Monica Worline

I was recently invited to speak at a professional development event where the theme was finding opportunity in times of change. The theme immediately made me think of one of my favorite quotes from Bob Quinn’s book Deep Change:  that change in organizations often feels like “walking naked into the land of uncertainty.” Handling internal organizational change in a time of external economic upheaval can make us feel even more naked.

Finding opportunity in the midst of such vulnerable, fearful experiences isn’t easy, and I wanted to acknowledge the real difficulties people in the audience are facing now. That started me thinking about thriving at work, and how much resilience it can take for us to thrive during times of change.

Gretchen Spreitzer, Kathleen Sutcliffe, Jane Dutton, Scott Sonenshein, and Adam Grant have written about thriving at work in a recent publication in Organization Science [1]. In that paper they suggest that thriving is a combination of experienced vitality and learning at work, and that our psychological experiences of thriving are deeply related to the social systems in which we are embedded. In other words, the work environment and the quality of our working relationships have a lot to do with our ability to thrive at work.

Thriving at work is different from resilience, though, as Spreitzer and colleagues note in their paper. Resilience is related to our behavior. How we act in the midst of adversity has a lot to do with how well we bounce back from difficulty and even use the difficulty to become more resourceful [2]. Many researchers suggest that resilience in organizations contrasts with a threat-rigidity [3] response to adversity, in which we narrow our thinking, attempt to exert control over things in our environment, and focus on avoiding loss. 

As I spoke to the audience about finding opportunity in change, I explained the assumptions of the threat-rigidity response to adversity. I suggested that our ability to thrive depends on being able to see ourselves and others falling into these patterns, and then doing something different. And while we might think of lots of techniques for resilience, I suggested that there are three resources that are particularly useful in the work environment to counter these tendencies toward rigidity that stifles thriving. These three resources are important for two reasons: first, they help us be resilient in the midst of difficulty; second, they are related to the psychological experience of thriving.

In the sections below, I describe each of these three resources and briefly contrast them with a threat-rigidity response to change. I hope that this brief glimpse of these particular resources will help you understand more about how to bounce back from difficulty and to experience more vitality and learning in your workplace.

When you feel yourself constricting your thinking, focus on positive emotion

Under threat, we all start to focus in on what needs to be done immediately. We narrow our attention to what is imminent. We tend to disregard new ideas. But when things are changing, we actually need new ideas more than ever. My suggestion? Laughter. Positive emotion helps broaden our mindsets [4]. Bringing in a sense of humor actually helps free us from the tendency to think too narrowly and opens us up to new ideas.

When you feel yourself attempting to control the uncontrollable, focus on mindful inclusion

 Change feels like losing control. What used to be familiar is no longer. As we feel the threat of change, we tend to exert more control and try to keep things from shifting, even when that is impossible. The last thing we want to do when things are changing all around us like this is to open up the process of change and include even more people in whatever tasks we are doing. And you guessed it – the last thing we are likely to do is the first thing we actually should do. When you catch yourself attempting to control the uncontrollable, it’s time to relax into inclusion. Being mindful of others and drawing on relationships helps foster resilience when things get tough and builds your vitality at work.

When you feel yourself anchoring on the negative, focus on your best self

 Times of threat focus us on all that there is to lose. Cognitive psychology shows that threat enhances a tendency to “anchor” our thinking on loss rather than gain. We also tend to weigh negative information more heavily than positive information. The resource that helps us in the midst of this tendency is knowledge of who we are at our best. When you can emphasize your best self, you can use your best self to steer your thinking and the thinking of others toward possibilities. Knowing who you are when you are at your best enables you to emphasize strengths and maximize the positive rather than remaining anchored in the negative.

Three Resources for the Resilience to Thrive

The three resources described above – positive emotion, mindful relationships, and knowing your best self – help counteract our tendencies for rigidity during times of change. Deliberately cultivating these three resources will help bolster resilience during adversity, and can ultimately help us thrive at work. Here are some specific ideas for cultivating these three resources on a more regular basis:

Positive Emotion

  • Create a file of uplifting quotes, websites, videos, or stories to turn to when you need inspiration
  • Share good news with your colleagues; celebrate accomplishments with deliberate joy
  • Create “play” at work, design time when everyone can have fun in ways that build positive emotion

Mindful Relationships

  • Seek help when you need it, with confidence in yourself and in others who can help you
  • Inquire about how people are doing if you notice a change in their nonverbal communication
  • Ask questions that show that you are curious about others and their interests 

Your Best Self

  • Use the Reflected Best Self exercise to learn more about who you are when you are at your best
  • Give feedback about strengths and make note of moments when you see yourself and others as truly alive at work
  • Increase the amount of time you spend with people who make you feel that you can be at your best


[1] Spreitzer, G., K. Sutcliffe, J. Dutton, S. Sonenshein, and A. Grant.  (2005). A Socially Embedded Model of Thriving at Work, Organization Science, 16(5):537-549.

[2] Sutcliffe, K.M., Vogus, T. J. 2003. Organizing for Resilience. In Cameron, K., Dutton, J.E., and Quinn, R.E. (Eds.), Positive Organizational Scholarship: 94-110. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

[3] Staw, B., Sandelands, L., & Dutton, J. (1981). Thread rigidity effects in organizational behavior: A multilevel analysis. Administrative Science Quarterly, 26(4): 501-524.

[4] Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.