Based on Research By Scott Sonenshein

How The Company You Work For Guides Your Idea Of Self-Improvement

  • Employees place a high value on self-growth at work.
  • Different types of organizations foster distinct types of employee growth.
  • Employees within an organization tend to follow specific patterns when viewing their growth on the job.

We Americans like to think of ourselves as self-starting individualists. For entrepreneurs, the need for self-improvement is obvious: you’re either getting better at what you do or you’re being overtaken by someone else. But what about the vast majority of other workers: those who draw a paycheck from an employer? Research shows that, for their own satisfaction, these workers, too, crave self-improvement. But who frames what that improvement looks like – and how it’s guided?

Scott Sonenshein, a professor at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business, joined colleagues Jane E. Dutton, Gretchen M. Spreitzer and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe of the University of Michigan and Adam M. Grant of the University of Pennsylvania to gauge the approach to employee growth – and the way workers understood and responded to those approaches – at three widely varying Midwestern organizations. For confidentiality, the researchers gave nicknames to each company.

They discovered that each business offered workers a different path to self-improvement, which the researchers labeled achieving, learning and helping. For example, at a for-profit financial services business, which they labelled FinCo, employees had to either achieve or leave. Interviews with FinCo employees revealed a go-go corporate culture complete with team chants, company-created mottos (“You’ll see it when you believe it”) and personal telephone affirmations from the CEO. When an employee didn’t meet company goals, supervisors delivered personal, highly challenging and sometimes job-threatening messages to light the necessary fire.

Workers at this kind of company really get only one kind of choice, the researchers found: They can get with the program and stay, or reject the company’s requirements and walk away.

Another for-profit company, labeled ChemCo, offered a much lower-pressure atmosphere. Unlike the FinCo managers, a ChemCo manager responded to an employee’s misstep with sympathy. “Don’t look at it as a mistake, take it as a learning process,” the manager advised. It’s no surprise, then, that ChemCo employees equated on-the-job growth with learning. In fact, the company insisted its employees learn their jobs through their own initiative. As one ChemCo employee reflected, “With this company you need to show initiative, you need to be a self-starter…. Those that have the need to be told and directed … tend not to thrive.” At FinCo, by contrast, employees are “told and directed.”

The researchers also looked at a non-profit organization they dubbed SocialOrg. A consortium of social services agencies, SocialOrg employed workers who seemed to split the difference between the company-directed growth required at FinCo and the self-driven growth at ChemCo. The non-profit’s employees responded to a wide range of influences, while the employer’s demands were somewhat less specific. As a result, workers often found themselves serving clients in ways that fell outside their expected job descriptions. For these employees, growth at work wasn’t measured in terms of hitting projections. It was judged by how successful they were at helping others.

The outcome: whether caseworker, custodian or receptionist, everyone at SocialOrg was a part-time social worker. When a client needed help, supervisors encouraged employees to put down their day-to-day tasks and pitch in. With expectations riding on that kind of behavior, it’s no surprise that helping was an integral part of SocialOrg culture. In the words of a maintenance worker, “When I see that [my coworkers are helping], it makes me try to do it more.”

Curiously, while each of the three organizations encouraged its own variety of employee growth, the workers themselves tended to see their desire for each kind of growth as emanating from within – an example, perhaps, of our attachment to the idea of rugged individualism.

In a way, of course, they were right: the workers were largely self-selected, and likely to leave or be fired if they didn’t embrace the collective culture. The end result was three different organizations whose workers experienced distinct, specific personal-growth journeys. Though their missions focused on shareholders, customers or social service clients, the effect of each organization was like a school system, with its own way of teaching and grading.

Like it or not, Sonenshein and his team concluded, if you stay at your job long enough, your growth and productivity will start to follow organizational values, much as a grapevine follows a trellis.

Scott Sonenshein is the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Sonenshein, S., Dutton, J. E., Grant, A. M., Spreitzer, G. M., & Sutcliffe, K.M. (2013). Growing at work: Employees’ interpretations of progressive self-change in organizations. Organization Science, 24(2), 552–570.