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Well-being of self-managed knowledge workers
Published : 16.05.2019

Finland is the world’s happiest country in year 2019 according to the World Happiness Report 2019 (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs (eds.) 2019). The report applies six criteria for ranking countries such as GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy at birth, freedom to make choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption. The scores based on individuals’ assessments on their life and well-being. There is a need for this multi-dimensional measure because, as professor Sachs admits in the Global Happiness and Well-being Policy Report (2019), GDP alone is not a proper measure of well-being.

Well-being is a concept with multiple but at the same time complementary dimensions such as psychological (mental or cognitive and affective or emotional), physiological (health), economic (financial, occupational), social, cultural, and environmental dimensions. According to these one can talk about mental wellbeing, emotional well-being, financial well-being, social well-being and so on. However, this brief article focuses on occupational well-being or well-being at work, more precisely on the well-being of knowledge workers. Being well at work influences the performance of individuals and consequently the performance of the whole organization. Therefore, exploring the following questions could be significant:

  • Who are the knowledge workers?
  • What motivates knowledge workers?
  • How can leaders reinforce loyalty and well-being of self-managed employees at work?
  • Who is a good leader?

Who are the knowledge workers?

In the knowledge and creative economy, the most important capital is the human capital. The old ways of superior and subordinates working relationships will not work with knowledge workers in the future. Drucker (2008) argues that ‘knowledge workers are not subordinates; they are “associates” … knowledge workers must know more about their job than their boss does – or else they are not good at all’ (ibid.: 71). He believes that knowledge workers cannot be managed they have to manage themselves. They are self-managed employees. Knowledge workers have to manage themselves (Drucker 2008: 481-497) by asking: Who am I? Am I a reader or a listener? How do I learn? What are my strengths? How do I work? What is my contribution? Where do I belong? What are my relationships? What are my values? What are my responsibilities?

Concurring with Drucker, professor Moss Kanter (2001: 226) argues that the new generation and talents would like to take control of their career, they want to take their future into their own hands, and they do not want to be subordinates. Knowledge workers are seeking meaningfulness in their lives and in their work. Similarly, Tappin and Cave (2008: 121) argue that knowledge workers and talents do not want to be managed by their superiors, they want to be equal partners at work, and they want to be lead.

What motivates knowledge workers?

Human resources researchers, Iqbal, Toulson and Tweed (2015) found that extrinsic motivational incentives (i.e., financial reward and recognition) do not work with knowledge workers. They argue that financial incentives have a minor, sometimes even controversial, impact on the knowledge sharing behavior. They conclude that ‘rewards are less effective in improving knowledge sharing behavior compared to HRM practices like employees’ collaboration and participation’ (ibid: 2015).

Purpose, autonomy and mastery motivate knowledge workers. Self-managed employees want to grow. According to Autry (1991: 158-159) knowledge workers value: spontaneity (risk, freedom); feeling connected to others; vulnerability; self-knowledge; wisdom (truth, ability to learn); authenticity (being the same wherever you are); truth at any cost (accept pain); communication with others; and potential to grow. Knowledge workers aiming at getting satisfaction from their work; performing challenging tasks; believing in the organizational mission; having the possibility for continuous training; and seeing the impact, the results of their work (Steinerowska-Streb and Wziatek-Staško 2016). Knowledge workers expect meaningfulness from their work, they want to provide worthwhile contributions, and they want to make an impact on their work (Studer 2003). Employees are looking for a place to work where ‘they have purpose, are doing worthwhile work, and can make a difference. They want to feel a part of things. And they want to be recognized and appreciated’ (ibid: 110). These are the main motivational factors for knowledge workers.

How can leaders reinforce loyalty and wellbeing of self-managed employees at work?

The commitment and loyalty of knowledge workers reinforced by providing training for future work, giving challenging assignments, having good colleagues, and by having a good salary (Moss Kanter 2001). However, professor Moss Kanter concludes that ‘The money has to be right, but you can’t buy loyalty just with money. Building long-term commitment depends on the nature of the work itself, the opportunity to grow and stretch, the chance to speak up and be listened to, and the feeling of making a difference’ (ibid.: 226). Loyalty depends on affection towards coworkers, a pleasant work environment, an easy commute, challenging work, and flexible work hours (ibid.: 205).

Drucker has a different opinion about loyalty of knowledge workers. He argues that ‘There is a lot of talk about trying to restore a knowledge worker’s loyalty to their employing organization, but such efforts will go nowhere. Knowledge workers may have an attachment to an organization and feel comfortable with it, but their primary allegiance is likely to be to their specialized branch of knowledge. … knowledge workers have mobility. They can leave. They own their means of production, which is knowledge’ (Drucker 2008: 41 and 72). Knowledge workers are highly mobile. Their mobility is recognized by Moss Kanter as well (2001: 198-199) when she refers to Todd L. Pittinsky who used the term ‘knowledge nomads’ for knowledge workers. Moss Kanter writes that knowledge workers ‘are loyal to an industry, to a technology, and to their profession, rather than to a particular company’. The role of leaders is important in creating a motivating and attractive work environment and conditions for knowledge workers.

Who is a good leader?

The tasks of leaders are to connect and communicate and to create a sharing and caring work atmosphere by engaging talents at work. This leadership challenge of the twenty first century knowledge-based economy requires that ‘great leaders in the coming decade must embrace, encourage, and deploy difference … They must provide the values, cultural glue, and leadership’ (Tappin and Cave 2008: 124). Ulrich and Smallwood (2011: 3) talk about the five rules of leaders, such as ‘shaping the future; making things happen; engaging today’s talent; building the next generation of talent; and investing in yourself. They argue that ‘These leadership basics explain 60 to 70 percent of leadership effectiveness. The other 30 to 40 percent of a brand are the differentiators, or those things that are unique to leaders in our company.’

Employees are more productive and happier at work when their bosses: (1) provide clear goals and job duties to employees; (2) have personal awareness of biases and power differentials and strive toward cultural competency; (3) are genuine and authentic in their interactions; (4) are ethical and demonstrate moral values in their interactions; (5) are honest and a model of integrity; (6) find employee talents and strengths and build on them; (7) trust workers and facilitate their employees’ trust in them; (8) encourage diverse views from diverse employees and accept feedback about them-selves; (9) set high but reasonable standards for employees and for themselves; (10) are not just friends to employees but can deliver corrective feedback. (Lopez, Pedrotti, and Snyder 2015: 434)

Similar conclusion can be read in the Health and Well-being report of the World Economic Forum (2012:4). They argue that employees feel well at work when:

  • The objective of the job is clear and is understood as part of a wider goal (task significance)
  • The worker has reasonable freedom and flexibility in how to do the work (autonomy)
  • The worker receives feedback and support for what he or she does (feedback)
  • The worker’s skill is up to the requirements of the job, but is also fully used (job fit)
  • Line managers are chosen who have the talent for personal relationships and technical management (managerial flair)
  • There is proper attention to fairness and procedural justice in the way work is organized (fairness)
  • There is sensitivity to the mental health problems of employees, with careful management of absence, adjustment of work arrangements and referral for treatment if necessary (mental health awareness)

In brief, well-being and being well at work depends on many factors. However, it is good to think about the most important element of the value creation in the creative economy, about people and about well-being of knowledge workers at work. Managers in many cases assume that performance metrics, supervision, clear rules, competition, bonuses, career ladder, exclusivity, fear, and training makes knowledge workers more productive. However, they need to reconsider their assumptions because what really matters are shared vision and purpose, autonomy, responsibility, recognition, collaboration, mastery, trust, belonging, and learning (

This article focused on the occupational well-being of knowledge workers. There were four topics explored who the knowledge workers, what motivates them, how leaders can reinforce their loyalty and well-being, and the characteristics of a good leader. The focus was on leadership because good leadership is the most critical factor in the well-being of knowledge workers at work.


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