Incorporating Expressive States into the Human Experience at Work

As employees, we are more than simply the sum of our skills and capabilities. When we think about who we are, we are far more likely to define ourselves by what we call “expressive states,” our unique collection of interests, motivations, and preferences. These descriptors help us tell our individual story and allow us to craft other’s understanding of how we operate and the value we bring to work.

Expressive states can best be described as things that make us feel energized at work and allow us to thrive. Interestingly, these states have been significantly underutilized in talent strategies, until now. We can now augment talent strategies with data about our individual preferences. Expressive states are a critical component to a fully realized whole self model, which is a framework to understand how employees experience change and opportunity throughout their career.

Graphic depicting the whole self model

What Are Expressive States?

The number of potential expressive states is limitless. To create a common language around these expressive states, the SAP SuccessFactors team has developed the following taxonomy:

  • Passions are activities you find particularly engaging or motivating. Examples include a passion for data analysis or a passion for teaching others. Passions are an essential component of the whole self model. Psychological research has indicated that when interests are considered, employees are less likely to leave the organization and performance increases.*
  • Aspirations represent longer term goals, what you aspire to become. Goal setting takes many forms, from small goals like improving skills to career-minded aspirations like becoming a people manager. The positive impact of goal setting on employee motivation and performance is often considered to be one of the most studied phenomenons in workforce psychology. This is for a good reason, as research has continuously demonstrated the importance of employees being empowered to set goals and aspirations.**
  • Mindsets represent our attitudes, beliefs, or approaches to work. Examples might include an ‘inclusive’ mindset or a ‘customer-first’ mindset. When employee mindsets are leveraged to allow employees to do work that aligns most to their values, the result is positive for both the employee and the business.***
  • Motivations represent specific drivers that pull you towards obtaining a goal or aspiration. These motives enable us to express what is currently driving us toward success or what is giving us the most energy at work. Examples of motivations might be the motivation to master a skill or obtain rewards – financial or otherwise. When employees are enabled to clearly identify their motivations their likelihood of succeeding in goals relating to that motivation increases.
  • Preferences represent how every unique employee prefers to work. Enabling employees to express their work preferences allows them to craft the environment that best suits their needs. Working from home, stock over cash bonuses, and communication tools are preferences. When employees are able to effectively map their work environment towards their preferences, the results are vast: higher organizational commitment, greater satisfaction, and lower turnover.††

Values Alignment

In so many ways, expressive states enable the clear and up-to-date expression of what we value at work. They empower employees to define goals, large and small, while also allowing them to set a clear agenda towards who they would like to become. However, expressive states are malleable and ready to shift with new information or inspiration from the world around us. When we are inspired by something we’ve learned, we want to be able to act on that information in a meaningful way. As a result, we continuously redefine our states to adjust and meet new opportunities. As our values shift, our work should reflect this.

Although expressive states are deeply personal and individualized, there’s much to be learned by understanding them in the organizational aggregate. We might even be able to answer the burning questions: Where are people’s heads at right now? Are they ready for change?

There are formulas waiting in expressive states, and there might be different formulas for different types of organizations at different times. Transformation velocity, for example, might be measured with aspirations, passions, and motivators. Understanding how employees align with corporate values might be measured with passions and mindsets. What if you recognized that there was a common thread shared by a volume of employees that might even inspire changes in your corporate values?

Putting the Whole Self to Work

Individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole benefit when we define and maximize our alignment of work towards our expressive states. For the individual, it’s all about giving them the tools to explore, experiment, and define who they are and what they value. We envision this definition to be the foundation for identifying learning paths, future roles, projects, and people and work communities to connect with, as well as guide conversations for what might be next.

For teams, understanding each other’s expressive states can create a shared understanding of each member’s strengths and ambitions, which is critical to the creation and management of healthy, well-balanced teams. Imagine the incremental support and doors that could open with a little more transparency into what we aspire to and our desired pathways. Bringing us closer to our human side creates and fosters team cohesion and understanding of each other.

And for the organization, expressive states bring a level of clarity and understanding on direction and tendencies for the workforce. Are they headed in directions which align with the organization’s mission and strategies? Does the organization have the right mindsets and values to meet its objectives? And where may it need to boost growth and development to fuel excitement into new areas of opportunity?

Only with the complete picture of the whole self, as defined by skills and capabilities, strengths and styles, and expressive states, are we able to reach that untapped potential in ourselves and organizations.

Learn more about delivering individualized recommendations for employees with SAP SuccessFactors Opportunity Marketplace.


Scott Lietzke is vice president of Product Design at SAP SuccessFactors.
Julie Bartholic is vice president of Product Innovation Design at SAP SuccessFactors.
Caitlynn Sendra is EX product scientist at SAP SuccessFactors.

*Van Iddekinge, C. H., Roth, P. L., Putka, D. J., & Lanivich, S. E. (2011). Are you interested? A meta-analysis of relations between vocational interests and employee performance and turnover. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(6), 1167.
**Kleingeld, A., van Mierlo, H., & Arends, L. (2011). The effect of goal setting on group performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of applied psychology, 96(6), 1289.
***Paarlberg, L. E., & Perry, J. L. (2007). Values management: Aligning employee values and organization goals. The American review of public administration, 37(4), 387-408.
†McClelland, D. C. (1985). How motives, skills, and values determine what people do. American psychologist, 40(7), 812.
††Lee, D., & Ahn, J. (2019). The relationships between person-environment fit and job-related variables: Meta-analysis. Korean Journal of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 32(2), 107-134.