Thriving at work

Health & wellbeing and happiness seem to be high on the political agenda at the moment. Here’s my take on it.

Thriving in the 21st century

Throughout 2009 and into 2010 I worked on a project researching competencies for thriving in complex, uncertain, and fast-changing 21st century environments.

Influenced by organisational learning theory and biomimcry, I defined ‘thriving’ as the combination of being able to adapt to changing conditions (relevance), maintaining function in light of a disturbance (resilience, purpose, identity and integrity), and working in ways that have benign/restorative impact on yourself, on other people and on the natural world (ethical practice). Each of these aspects of the definition has a set of associated competencies, qualities and attributes, as shown in the diagram here.


This definition of ‘thriving’ extends the concept of success into the wider system, bringing benefits to the individual, other people and the natural world of which we are an integral part and upon which we depend for survival.

In this model, thriving is not a fixed static state, it is an emergent property of the complex interaction of competencies and influencing factors in a specific situation.

In any particular situation, there will be an optimum level of possession and utilisation of CQAs that yields best performance for that individual. Determining what this level is, is a matter of judgement and trusting one’s intuition. For example, too little of the CQA of ‘being generally positive and optimistic’ may lead to lack of motivation to deal with problems, whereas too much (apart from being annoying!) may lead to naive behaviour or not noticing early warning signals.

Assessing how people feel and perform at work

As I’ve been researching this with organisations in the past year, I’ve noticed similar themes recur, and I’ve developed an understanding of key competencies and factors that influence how people feel and perform at work. I take all of the following into account when assessing where people are at and identifying areas where interventions could bring benefit:

  • State of mental and physical health (influenced by e.g. diet, sleep, personalty, genetics)
  • Extent to which you are ‘in your element’ where the things you are good at and the things you love doing come together
  • Extent to which you use your imagination in unstructured ‘free play’ (been found to promote continued mental and physical wellbeing in adults, and helps avoid burn-out from the busyness of everyday life)
  • Satisfaction with life score
  • Happiness score
  • Resilience score. This is based on responses to perceived possession of certain competencies and qualities e.g. generally feeling positive and optimistic, ability to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity, quick to see problems as opportunities, focusing on solutions rather than problems, self-motivation, self-acceptance, ability to think systemically; sense of perspective, sense of humour, de-personalising; and knowing how to get oneself into a resourceful state
  • Self- confidence
  • Extent to which basic emotional needs are perceived to be met in a balanced and appropriate way e.g. meaning and purpose, competency (feeling comfortably stretched and effective); status relative to others, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. The latter 5 needs form the SCARF model – see below.


Social neuroscience research finds that our perception of the behaviour of others can trigger either a threat or reward response in our brains, leading us to feel emotions are negative (e.g. anxiety, unhappiness, discomfort) or positive (e.g. relaxed, happy, energised, focussed).

The threat response is mentally taxing and makes us less efficient because it uses up oxygen and glucose diverted from parts of the brain involved with higher intellectual functioning.

Until the threat is resolved it is difficult to focus on other things. The human brain is more tuned to threats than rewards; threat responses tend to be more intense, last longer, and are harder to dispatch once aroused.

Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness are known as the SCARF model, and these emotional needs are particularly sensitive to threat or reward triggers.

Every decision and action either supports or undermines perceived levels of SCARF.

The trick is to:

  • Maximise rewards by behaving in ways that support your own and others status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness
  • Reduce threats by labelling and reappraising events

Vulnerability to stressors

People vary in their ability to cope with threats to their emotional needs – they are vulnerable in different ways and to different degrees. Your level of vulnerability to a particular stressor can also change depending on other factors such as amount of sleep, quality of diet, or state of personal life.

Awareness of what you have a tendency to be vulnerable to is very useful information, as you can then develop strategies for managing it by strengthening your resilience.

A lot of uncertainty with not much control is very stressful for anybody, and impacts on mental health.

Common strategies for increasing certainty for self and others include:

  • Breaking complex projects into small steps
  • Sharing information (what, why, how, who, when)
  • Transparency about how decision are made
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