Opportunity and Empowering Employees

In the past, opportunity was equated with a promotion or pay increase. In our interviews with organizational leaders, we found that many can no longer rely on these traditional methods of conveying opportunity. The reality is, organizations are running leaner, and promotions and raises are not always possible. However, our research indicates that while employees value promotions and pay raises, these are not the only forms of opportunity that employees desire. Employees want to feel heard and have a seat at the table. They want to do challenging work, to try new things, to work on special projects, and to be continuously learning. Opportunity for employees today means providing the ability to grow, develop, and to contribute. Remember, they want to change the world.

Opportunity is a multi-faceted concept; yet, it is often pigeon-holed by organizations as a promotion or pay increase. Our Talent Magnet Culture Framework relies on five measures of opportunity: potential for career advancement, continuous learning, the ability to work on special projects, shared influence, and a lack of perceived favoritism. Unsurprisingly, all but continuous learning fell at the halfway mark. This echoed our qualitative findings indicating leaders have a long way to go to create a sense of opportunity within their organizations.

A thriving culture requires that employees not only connect with purpose but also that the organization provides them with opportunities to fulfill that purpose.

Employees listed opportunity for professional growth as one of their top drivers of engagement, and exiting employees said a lack of opportunity was their second highest reason for quitting.1 When researchers at Gallup asked employees how vital specific attributes were to them when applying for new jobs, opportunities to learn and grow came out at the top of the list.2

Opportunity helps employees feel they can make a difference in the organization. It empowers them to influence important decisions that contribute to the company and take ownership in its success. Employees now expect it from their workplaces. If your organization doesn’t have a robust promotion track or significant raises, other forms of opportunity, like variety in work, special projects, and influence in important decisions become much more critical to providing a sense of opportunity. Special projects, in particular, can improve all six talent magnet areas.

“Opportunity is a chance to explore what fulfills you and to try new things at work. It may not be a promotion, but when they allow me autonomy, that’s opportunity.”

A Chronic Lack of Opportunity

While the need for opportunity is not new, our data indicate that opportunity is still not a universal experience for employees:

Only about half of employees feel their organization provides opportunities for career advancement, learning, influence, or special projects

50% feel there is an element of favoritism in the workplace when it comes to opportunity

Even a perceived lack of opportunity impacts talent acquisition, engagement, and retention. When presented with opportunities to take on new challenges, our research found 83% of employees say they’re more likely to stay with an organization3 that offers new problems to solve and projects to work on than if they did not have those opportunities.

Many organizations don’t have the budget or plans for rapid growth that allows employees to move up the ladder quickly. But there are other ways to provide employees with a sense of opportunity in place of pay raises and promotions.

68% of leaders agree their workplace provides opportunities, compared to only 44% of individual contributors.


“I asked my supervisor if there were any additional responsibilities, or tasks I could take on to learn more or to explore deeper. Her response was, ‘If you want to further your career, you should do it at a different company.’ So, I quit.”

Even if employees aren’t earning a new title, they want to feel connected to something important in the organization and be involved in doing important work. Our research shows over half (52%) of Gen Z employees prefer variety in their day-to-day job over a promotion, and many employees see things like influencing decisions and being involved in special projects with key influencers as a critical component of opportunity.


Provide variety at work.

Employees are looking for ways to work on new things and improve their skills in a variety of ways. They want variety in what they do, whom they work with, and how they work. Working on different projects allows the employee to get exposure to and interact with new areas of the company and network with a broader group of coworkers.

We found when employees experience variety in their jobs, there is a:

56% increase in overall job satisfaction

106% increase in the likelihood they will be motivated to contribute to the success of the organization

114% increase in the sense of opportunity available to them at their organization


Give employees a voice in important decisions.

The prospect of moving up the org chart is an important factor in an employee’s experience at work, but in many cases, a promotion only becomes important because employees don’t feel a sense of empowerment or a seat at the table. Employees want their voice to be heard, to give input on important decisions. They want to know their opinion is valued and that they can contribute in more substantial ways. When this is done well, our data show employees are 30% more likely to believe they influence important decisions at work.

Having a voice helps employees feel more connected to the larger organization and have an increased sense of ownership in the company’s success. They see the bigger picture. They understand the company strategy and how they and their team contribute to it. They learn how their work and their decisions affect the entire organization, which helps them to improve how they do their jobs.



Special Projects—an underutilized tool.

Employees report feeling a sense of opportunity when they learn new skills and connect with employees they may not regularly work with. Being chosen to participate in a special project tells employees they are valued and skilled enough for this particular piece of work. It gives them visibility with leaders they may not normally work with and peers in other departments, and provides exposure to other areas where they can learn new knowledge and skills.

Working on special projects helps employees see and connect with the broader organization, not just their immediate team and leader. It connects them to that bigger purpose they’re looking for and builds a feeling of belonging. As they acquire new knowledge that helps improve their day-to-day responsibilities, they see how their daily work impacts other areas of the company. When we previously studied 10,000 examples of award-winning work, we found nearly 9 out of 10 instances of great work involved someone seeing for themselves how his or her work would impact others.5

The research indicated only 49% of employees worked on a special project at their organization, and for those employees who did not, only 30% felt empowered to. Yet the opportunity to work on a special project has a positive impact on how an employee feels about their job, their company culture, professional development opportunities, and engagement. As the table illustrates, there are significant differences if an employee has participated in a special project or not.

Our latest research found when an employee participates in a special project, they:

are 50% more likely to believe they learn new and valuable things in their current role

have a 26% increased sense of opportunity

have a 114% increased satisfaction with leadership

It’s important to note that “special projects” affects all six talent magnets. Our research shows that participating in special projects improves an employee’s sense of opportunity, but it also increases their feelings of purpose, success, appreciation, wellbeing, and their perceptions of leadership. Special projects help people fulfill the organization’s purpose. Employees find success when their projects go well. They feel their unique skills are appreciated and their leaders value them enough to know their skills and seek to apply them. By simply inviting and involving employees in special projects, organizations can drastically improve the whole employee experience.

“We help people reinvent themselves by giving them projects with enticing rewards attached. Even if they aren’t making promotional advancements, at least they feel they’re making some sort of career progress through growth and learning.”

A word of caution: before layering on additional opportunities, make sure to account for an employee’s existing workload. If opportunity is perceived as a disguise for a lack of resources, it could backfire and negatively impact the employee experience. As you will see in the following sections, special projects are one of the tools that can improve multiple talent magnets, like appreciation and leadership.

While providing opportunities to grow and develop in the workplace, it’s important to remember the impact that recognition plays. Recognition is a critical component of special projects. Showing appreciation when an employee is involved in a special project, an important decision, or expands their work responsibilities multiplies the feeling of growth and development in their current role. Unfortunately, only 48% of employees reported receiving recognition for the contributions they made to special projects.


Provide networking and mentorship opportunities.

Employees also find a sense of opportunity when given the chance to grow their personal social networks. Exposing employees to processes and ideas outside of their day-to-day tasks broadens their perspective on how they can and do contribute, which increases their sense of opportunity. Diversity in social ties—even if it’s just acquaintances—also builds a sense of belonging and improves wellbeing.

Create opportunities to network and connect with cross-functional peers, influencers, and high-level leaders. Support cross-departmental projects. Recognize great work publicly to provide visibility outside of a single team or department.

Offer relationship-building activities during work hours to show the organization is committed to building these connections. Our research shows offering relationship-building activities and events after hours or during unpaid time actually negatively impacts hourly employees and creates a divide in the feeling of opportunity between hourly and exempt employees. By providing opportunities at work to build relationships and connect, we saw employees were 106% more likely to have a sense of opportunity for career advancement within their organization.

Our research found employees who work at companies that provide mentorship opportunities to all employees, not just top performers, are:

72% more likely to believe their organization allows all employees to grow, not just favorites

66% more likely to believe their organization provides an opportunity for career advancement

30% more likely to believe they help influence important decisions at work

56% more likely to report they learn new and valuable things in their current role



Opportunity Equals Empowerment

Organizations can foster a sense of opportunity for employees by empowering them to take the lead, make decisions, work on special projects, and connect with others. Employees want to be empowered to work on meaningful, engaging, and impactful projects that fulfill the organization’s purpose. Enable your people to contribute to projects they can be proud of and find success.

“It’s really just about empowering people. Give them specific projects they wouldn’t normally experience. Or, stretch them a bit—give them leadership roles. These are some simple ways we attract and keep talent.”


Provide a variety of meaningful work.

Empower employees to influence decisions.

Assign special projects.

Support cross-functional networking and mentorship for all.

Opportunity Sources

1. Sarah Klongerbo, “Don’t hold us back: Motivate employees with opportunities for growth at work”, 9clouds, July 22, 2015.
2. Brandon Rigoni and Amy Adkins, “What Millennials Want from a New Job,” Harvard Business Review, May 22, 2016.
3. “Office Perks: Millennial Expectations Change What Employers Offer,” Report Linker, February 28, 2017.
4. Adam Robinson, “Want to Boost Your Bottom Line? Encourage Your Employees to Work on Side Projects”, Inc., March 12, 2018.
5. David Sturt, Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love, O.C. Tanner Institute, 2014

We saw significant differences between generations in perceived opportunity at their organization.

Google’s famous 20% time, created by founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, allows employees one day per week to work on any Google project of their choosing. This opportunity to work on new things and special projects gave birth to Adsense, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Talk, and a host of other innovations that we can’t live without today. It also helps establish Google as a role model for a great corporate culture.4

Dow Chemical provides a regular, informal gathering for their scientists to come together and discuss the projects and challenges they are working on. This cross-disciplinary dialogue has led to innovative thinking, gives exposure to new talent, and creates a sense of belonging that helps fend off competitive recruiting.

By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.