Red Flags in Workplace Wellness Research: How to Spot Them and What They Mean

The health promotion and workplace wellness industries are not shy about promoting the efficacy of their initiatives. Unfortunately, conflicting research can make it difficult to know what to believe and who to trust. Additionally, many health promotion and wellness professionals (and most people generally) do not have sufficient training and experience in statistical analysis or research methodology to be able to decipher for themselves what conclusions can genuinely be drawn from the scientific research.

This paper will offer insight for thinking critically about claims made by study authors or others who promote research in these industries, through the lens of seven common “red flags.” These red flags are examples of flaws in research methodology or inaccuracies in the resulting claims that it is important for literature readers to understand. Health promotion and workplace wellness professionals can use this paper as a guide for objectively evaluating the literature and its associated claims.

Read it Now

To Nudge or Not to Nudge? The Promises and Pitfalls of Behavioral Economics at the Workplace

Nudges have become the darlings of wellbeing efforts at the workplace, used in a wide variety of efforts designed to help employees improve their health. These types of behavioral prompts appear to be relatively simple and harmless, and they can be effective for promoting certain types of behaviors. However, nudges are not without their problems and pitfalls.

This white paper offers wellness professionals and business leaders introductory information about behavioral economics and nudges and provides an analysis of the benefits and risks of their application in workplace change efforts.

Read it Now

Helping Health System Employees Foster Positive Self-Care Regardless of Size: Results of a Pilot Program Whitepaper

This white paper features results of a pilot program at Beaumont Health leveraging programs and training from Salveo Partners and Am I Hungry?

Learn what happens and is possible when moving away from weight-focused programs to helping employees foster positive self-care.

Read it Now

eBook cover with lightbulb

Free Resource: Leveraging The Fusion to Create Thriving Organizations

As claims of health care cost savings are proven false and resistance to the “Wellness or Else” model grows, many organizational leaders and wellness professionals recognize the need for a new approach to organizational and employee wellbeing. Support for one such New Paradigm approach, called The Fusion, is growing. Professionals who wish to lead the shift toward The Fusion within their circle of influence must be skilled at effectively communicating these New Paradigm messages. This eBook summarizes the core messages of The Fusion and provides strategies for combining evidence and powerful questions into meaningful conversations that will help transform the organizational and employee wellbeing landscape.

Read it Now

Autonomy: What Wellness Needs to Learn from Business (and quickly!)

Autonomy is defined in the dictionary as:

“Independence or freedom, as of the will or one’s actions”

And though we often think of the “freedom” to act or the notion of “free will” from political or spiritual perspectives, some biologists now believe that it is an underlying and inalienable condition of life.

“The freedom to create one’s self is the foundational freedom of all life. One current definition of “life” in biology is that something is alive if it is capable of producing itself… Every living being is author of its own existence, and continues to create itself through its entire life span…Life gives to itself the freedom to become, and without that freedom to create there is no life.”

And according to Edward Deci, perhaps the world’s leading expert on motivation, autonomy is (along with competence and relatedness) one of three innate human psychological needs. A wealth of research, spanning many decades and from all corners of the globe, strongly supports that people naturally seek autonomy. When they find it their quality of life improves: better grades, increased persistence towards desired goals, higher productivity, less burnout and greater levels of psychological wellbeing.

In fact, the research is consistently clear that autonomy, the freedom people have to act, is a major determinant of human health. As world renowned epidemiologist and public health researcher Dr. Michael Marmot writes in his groundbreaking book The Status Syndrome:

“Autonomy – how much control you have over your Life – and the opportunities you have for full social engagement and participation are crucial for health, well-being and longevity.”

Autonomy in Business:

Then: In the late 1880’s and early 1900’s, Frederick Taylor introduced scientific management into the workplace. Taylor employed the same approach to improving the efficiency of employees as he did to the machines on which they were working. He broke job tasks down to their component parts and calculated the one best way to do the job. Echoing the philosophic footsteps of BF Skinner and other behaviorists, Taylor believed that working men’s minds were inconsequential, so that:

“Each man must give up his own particular way of doing things, adapt his methods to the many new standards, and grow accustomed to receiving and obeying instructions, covering details large and small, which in the past had been left to individual judgment. The workmen are to do as they are told.”

True to the legacy of the 17th-century mechanistic, reductionist worldview, viewing people as machines and applying similar scientific methods to human work gained great popularity among managers. As a result, early 20th century workplaces were painfully devoid of worker autonomy.

It is not difficult to pick out the flaws in this control-oriented approach to managing employees. We know that people want and need autonomy, responsibility and control over their work and the freedom to think and do for themselves. But when we separate thinking from doing, we severely limit their autonomy.

And Now: The good news for business is that experts in the organizational development world are keenly aware of the critical importance of worker autonomy. More than a decade ago, business management guru Peter Drucker put it best when discussing the importance of embracing the concept of worker autonomy:

“The need to manage oneself is therefore creating a revolution in human affairs.”

In fact, the most successful organizations today have fully and sometimes radically embraced the critical importance of worker autonomy. The Firms of Endearment (FoEs) are 28 widely loved companies including among others; Whole Foods, FedEx, Starbucks, Google, Southwest Airlines, Patagonia, Costco, Toms, Wegmans, Semco and Zappos. Among other distinguishing characteristics, these highly successful companies are benefiting financially by placing more autonomy in the hands of their employees because they have learned that when employees are engaged and fulfilled they transfer those qualities to their work

Here are just a few of the scores of examples provided in the book that demonstrate the amazing approaches these companies take when it comes to nurturing employee autonomy.

  • At Wegmens food markets all employees have complete freedom to do whatever it takes to satisfy their customers – without having to consult with a manager; from cooking a Thanksgiving turkey in the store for a customer who had bought one that was too big to cook at home to sending a chef to a customer’s house to make right a food order that had been botched.
  • At Brazilian ship building giant Semco: all meetings are optional (people are encouraged to leave when they lose interest), all vacations are mandatory; employees suggest their own pay levels, assess the performance of their bosses, and the books are open for all employees to see
  • At Honda, any employee can invoke a meeting practice called waigaya (“noisey loud”), in which participants put aside rank to work on a particular problem – an invitation that executives must accept if they are called on to do so. At one such meeting a low-ranking employee was able to convince senior managers who wanted a more conservative approach that that the advertising campaign –  “You Meet The Nicest People n a Honda” was a good idea.

Just to be clear, for those of you who might wondering how all this touchy-feely stuff actually impacts the bottom line, FoEs have outperformed the S&P 500 by a factor of 14 times over a period of 15 years. Without exception, these companies are, in more scientific terms, seriously kicking the butt of the competition in almost every imaginable way.

Finally a growing group of self-managed companies have taken employee autonomy one giant step farther, doing away with the pyramidal hierarchies of power, and relocating most decision making authority to teams of individuals – usually those closest to where the actual work is being done. From healthcare to education to manufacturing and from for profit to nonprofit, the resulting freedom and trust in individual autonomy has created innovative, progressive, highly successful (and profitable when appropriate) organizations.

Autonomy and Workplace Wellness

Then: Not surprisingly, like all other aspects of our culture, the wellness industry also has its roots in the mechanistic worldview of the 17th century and the behaviorist dogma of the 20th century. Taylor’s belief in the inconsequential nature of human thinking and autonomy was echoed by the behaviorists most well known advocate B.F. Skinner when he said:

There is no place in the scientific analysis of behavior for a mind or a self.”

In spite of the fact that all of Skinner’s research was performed on animals, he believed that all human actions could be explained by the principle of “reinforcement.” This is closely akin to what we commonly think of as reward. Skinner’s theory states most basically that behaviors followed by rewards (positive consequences) are likely to be repeated. So, for instance, when the phone rings, we pick it up. If every time the phone rings we pick it up and nobody is there, we will eventually stop picking up the phone. Thus, the behavior of answering the phone is reinforced by the consequence of human contact on the other end.

Although this example seems reasonable, Skinner believed that all human actions resulted from this same process. He concluded that human beings (like the machines on which they work and the rodents in his experiments) have essentially no freedom to act, no free will, no autonomy; that all of our actions are merely mindless “repertoires of behavior” that can be fully explained by the environmental consequences that follow them.

Skinner was so confident in this theory of human behavior he felt it explained even the most complicated human experiences. In his own words he describes the evolution of love between two people:

“One of them is nice to the other and predisposes the other to be nice to him and that makes him even more likely to be nice. It goes back and forth and it may reach the point at which they are very highly disposed to do nice things to the other and not to hurt and I suppose this is what would be called being in love.”

Now: Unfortunately, workplace wellness has not seen the same movement away from these outdated approaches to human motivation and behavior. In fact, a strong case can be made that, in terms of promoting employee autonomy, the industry has been moving in the opposite and wrong direction.

The movement backwards was given a strong shot in the arm by the passage of the so-called Safeway Amendment in the Affordable Care Act. While the use of incentives to “drive” employee health behavior had been present before, the ACA now gave permission for organizations to ramp up the intensity, not only to reward people for participating, but to punish them as well if they don’t – or if they do participate but fail to reach some predetermined health objective.

Participation in workplace wellness programs has always been problematic, so the justification for these incentives was that employees would not participate or improve their health unless they were forced to do so. While it is true that participation did increase some with the advent of these external rewards and punishments, the reality is that as Daniel Pink clarifies in his groundbreaking book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us:

“The opposite of autonomy is control. And since they sit at different poles of the behavioral compass, they point us towards different directions. Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”

The results of this “wellness or else” approach to employee health have been devastating. Independent research has shown these programs don’t save money or improve health and they are highly disliked by employees, suggesting that they are more likely to decrease rather than increase employee morale and engagement which costs business a half a trillion dollars every year in the US alone. In fact even HERO, the major research arm of the industry has admitted that employee morale is a likely casualty of these approaches.

Even more discouragingly, perhaps in desperation to increase participation, some in the industry have recommended even stronger control-oriented strategies. It has been suggested that we need to be more authoritative in our efforts to control employee’s behavior; further reducing employee autonomy by “getting tougher” on them, jacking up the penalties and even making participation mandatory – with one wellness professional suggesting that employees who don’t like the programs might consider finding work elsewhere.

And in a recent, truly frightening editorial in the leading industry journal, it was even suggested that the best way to deal with employee health issues might be for business to simply not hire anyone who doesn’t meet some established health criteria for fitness, weight, smoking and who knows what else.

Take Home – Catching Up

It is increasingly clear that people and organizations thrive when autonomy is high, when employees are trusted and encouraged to bring their whole, unfettered selves to bear on their work and their work relationships. The workplace wellness industry’s movement backwards to the control-oriented approaches of the 20th century stands in direct contradiction to the ongoing revolution in organizational development and simply will not fly in the emerging volatile business landscape of the 21st Century VUCA world.

Many businesses and business leaders are already questioning these approaches as it becomes clear that they may well be detrimental to the successful direction in which their organizations are moving – and from which they are thriving.

In order for employee wellness to thrive and perhaps even survive, it is essential that the industry bring its understanding of human behavior and change into the 21st century. We need to put down our carrots and our sticks, embrace and nurture autonomy as a fundamental right of every human being and invest in our employees with a firm and sacred understanding that:

“The only way to achieve the goal of having employees act like creative, thinking, responsible, autonomous adults is to treat them like that is exactly what they are.”

It long past time to stop treating employees like they are cogs in a machine, small rodents or young children. Our industry leaders could learn so much from business people like Ricardo Semler, CEO of Semco, one of the wildly successful Firms of Endearment:

“We always assume that we’re dealing with responsible adults, which we are. And when you start treating employees like adolescents…that’s when you start to bring out the adolescent in people.”

The Employee Health Program Code of Conduct: Programs Should Do No Harm

As wellness programs and strategies continue to evolve, some things should remain constant. By intent, all wellness programs should be designed in a way to improve health and do no harm. While it sounds simple, there is emerging research and evidence to suggest that some practices employed by the wellness industry may actually be doing the opposite, placing employees in situations that are more harmful than beneficial to their health.  Excessive penalties for non-participation, screening outside a frequency defined by national guidelines, or providing programs that result in weight cycling are a few examples of practices that can, not only do physical harm, but could also have serious psychological and financial consequences that undermine the good work for which our programs were designed.

There are incredible vendors in the wellness space that provide products and services that adhere to a do no harm philosophy. This sparked a discussion among four industry leaders about developing a code of conduct and industry promise to continue to improve peoples’ lives at work. Having collectively worked with thousands of organizations on their wellness strategies, Ryan Picarella, Al Lewis, Rosie Ward and Jon Robison collaborated to define a minimum set of standards that will help us live up to the expectation that employees and employers have for wellness programs. In this rapidly growing time for our industry, it is timely to set a standard that ensures we continue to innovate in a way that makes employees happy, healthy and hopeful.

We propose the following Industry Code of Conduct for wellness programs that employers, vendors and consultants consider adopting. Is something significantly missing? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Employee Health Program Code of Conduct:  Programs Should Do No Harm

Our organization resolves that its program should do no harm to employee health, corporate integrity or employee/employer finances. Instead we will endeavor to support employee well-being for our customers, their employees and all program constituents.

Employee Benefits and Harm Avoidance

Our organization will recommend doing programs with/for employees rather than to them, and will focus on promoting well-being and avoiding bad health outcomes. Our choices and frequencies of screenings are consistent with United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), CDC guidelines, and Choosing Wisely.

Our relevant staff will understand USPSTF guidelines, employee harm avoidance, wellness-sensitive medical event measurement, and outcomes analysis.

Employees will not be singled out, fined, or embarrassed for their health status.

Respect for Corporate Integrity and Employee Privacy

We will not share employee-identifiable data with employers and will ensure that all protected health information (PHI) adheres to HIPAA regulations and any other applicable laws.

Commitment to Valid Outcomes Measurement

Our contractual language and outcomes reporting will be transparent and plausible. All research limitations (e.g., “participants vs. non-participants” or the “natural flow of risk” or ignoring dropouts) and methodology will be fully disclosed, sourced, and readily available.

The Power of Words: 8 Suggestions for Building a 21st Century Vocabulary for Organizational and Employee Wellbeing

The business world of the 21st century bears little resemblance to that of the 17-20th centuries. The conceptualization of the world as an elaborate machine and the quest for more and better ways to command, control and predict is giving way to a new understanding sometimes referred to as the VUCA world.

In a VUCA World, enlightened leaders are beginning to grasp the futility of the quest for control and predictability for organizations and the people who work within them in the rapidly changing, uncertain, ambiguous, complex and often volatile new business reality. This understanding is supported by the latest scientific advances in chaos and complexity, quantum physics, neuroscience, etc., and necessitates an updated vocabulary that better represents the emerging realities; human beings and the organizations in which they work as complex living systems – not machines.

The Power of Words

Words have an amazing power to impact the way we think and feel. As the great English writer/storyteller Rudyard Kipling put it:

“Words are the most powerful drugs used by mankind.
Not only do words infect, egotize, narcotize and paralyze,
but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain.”

Unfortunately, the vocabulary commonly used today in organizational and employee wellbeing is still often stuck in those 17th-20th century conceptualizations of organizations and human beings. With that in mind, we have put together some suggestions to help business and wellbeing professionals alike begin to update our vocabulary to better represent 21st century realities. We hope you will find these instructive and we invite you to send in your own additional suggestions.

  • From Pyramidal Hierarchy to Network of Teams

The traditional pyramidal organizational chart consists of boxes of roles stacked neatly on top of one and other, with the CEO at the top. This makes perfect sense for a mechanistic world based on command and control. But in a VUCA world hierarchies are just too inflexible and too slow to react effectively to change. Enlightened leaders are rapidly becoming aware of this. In the most recent Deloitte Research, spanning more than 130 companies and 7,000 responses, senior executives and HR leaders rated organizational design as their number 1 priority. Pyramidal hierarchies, along with organizational charts and time punch cards are all remnants of the mechanistic worldview of the 17th century and the Scientific Management (Taylorism) of the 20th century. The overwhelming trend in a VUCA world is for companies to be flattening out their structures, pushing responsibility down and relying on networks of teams. In fact, some highly successful companies have done away with their hierarchies altogether; transferring virtually all decisions to the employees on the front line (nurses, machine operators, teachers, etc.) – from budgets, to hiring and firing, to establishing decision making guidelines to calling meetings.

  • From Maximizing Profits to Maximizing Purpose 

The Firms of Endearment (FoEs) are 28 widely loved companies including among others; Whole Foods, FedEx, Starbucks, Google, Panera, Southwest Airlines, Patagonia, Costco, Toms, and Zappos. As the authors describe, unlike traditional companies, FoEs –

“Are fueled by passion and purpose, not cash. They earn large profits by helping all their stakeholders thrive: customers, investors, employees, partners, communities and society.”

It turns out that when you create a culture based on love, take care of all your stakeholders as if they were family, and focus on maximizing purpose, the profits – and impressive profits at that – will follow. The authors (all distinguished, world-renowned experts in the business world) call out to business leaders:

“As leaders of FoEs do, companies of every type and size should consciously shape their cultures around the idea that we are here to help others live their lives with greater satisfaction, to spread joy and well being, to elevate and educate, and to help employees and customers fulfill their natural potential.”

Why should we consider the focus on purpose as the future of business? Well, aside from the fact that we are likely beginning a transition from the information economy to a new economy based on purpose, the FoEs have outperformed the S&P 500 by a factor of 14 times over a period of 15 years. Without exception, these companies are, in more scientific terms, seriously kicking the butt of the competition in almost every imaginable way.

  • From Human Resources/Capital to Human Beings

The terms resources and capital both hearken back to the 17th century conceptualization of humans as inanimate objects like coal, oil, money or cogs in a machine; to be used, manipulated and replaced as with any other expendable resource. Unlike resources that have fixed and diminishing value however, human beings, with the proper support and recognition actually increase in value. And unlike inanimate resources, human beings have an innate need for autonomy, the ability to direct their own lives. Given that, we might consider shifting our language to reflect viewing employees as whole, self-directing human beings. Progressive companies such as Whole Foods, Target, and others refer to their employees as “team members” or “partners.” As one young CEO put it:

“My dad’s generation views human beings as human resources.
They’re the two-by-fours you need to build your house.
For me, it’s a partnership between me and my employees.
They’re not resources. They’re partners.”

  • Distinguishing Between Wellness Participation and Employee Engagement

Participation simply refers to taking part in or completing some program or task.Employee engagement on the other hand, is a well-known construct in the business world. It refers to how employees feel about their work, as Ringleb and Rock write in a fascinating article titled “NeuroLeadership in 2009”:

“When a person is engaged, they are attracted to, inspired by, committed to and even fascinated by their work or their input to the work relationship.”

Business and health professionals often use these terms interchangeably, referring toemployee engagement when they are actually describing wellness program participation. Some use the word engagement instead of participationwhen they are referring to employees doing something of their own accord rather than as a result of being pressured to do so. Unfortunately the term employee engagementis still problematic here, as even voluntary participation may or may not have anything to do with how employees feel about their workplace.

To make matters worse, wellness program participation is often driven by threats of punishment, resulting in what is more accurately described as compliance as opposed to participation. In these cases, even if participation is increased, engagement is likely to suffer as employees overwhelmingly dislike being threatened with punishment for not participating.

  • Distinguishing Between Organizational Climate and Organizational Culture

A culture of health or a healthy workplace culture is often described in terms of subsidized gym memberships, fresh produce in the cafeteria and other policies, programs, and practices that promote healthy lifestyle behaviors. In fact, this is not really describing organizational culture at all, but rather organizational climate. As with employee engagement, the business world has clearly defined parameters for what determines a healthy organizational culture. Renowned management consultant Dr. Patrick Lencioni describes a healthy workplace culture as one in which there is minimal politics and confusion, low turnover, and high morale and productivity. While a healthy workplace climate and healthy lifestyle programs can offer some benefits for employees, if the underlying organizational culture is unhealthy, these programs won’t actually improve the health of employees or the organization in the long term.

  • From How Do We Get People to Change?(exercise, lose weight, participate, increase their productivity, etc.) To How Do We Create the Conditions for Change?

Of course, the former term reflects the legacy of the 17th century control paradigm and 20th century Skinnerian behavior modification and is unfortunately one of the most common phrases uttered by business and wellness professionals alike. We now have more than 30 years of consistent and definitive research that demonstrates that it is intrinsic motivation that is the key to sustainable change for challenges that involve even a modicum of thinking and creativity – the overwhelming majority of changes we are asking of organizations and employees. And, as the research clearly demonstrates,  intrinsic motivation involves more than just changes in behavior, changes that are not facilitated and in fact are likely inhibited by a reliance on extrinsic motivation. Instead of trying to get people to change, consider refocusing your efforts to creating the conditions for change and supporting desired outcomes.

  • From Driving(participation, engagement, performance, etc.) to Fostering Engagement and Eliciting Better Thinking

When the early American settlers needed to get cattle to the market for slaughter, they did so with a “cattle drive.” Although we may be OK driving cattle and perhaps our cars, driving people (what we affectionately refer to as “The Bonanza Effect) is actually counterproductive as autonomy is one of the key determinants of employee engagement. Human autonomy flows from the desire and ability to direct our own lives. At the most basic level it is about having freedom from external control or influence. The concept of a cattle drive is clearly the antithesis of this. Instead, focus on eliciting better thinking, fostering engagementand supporting people to grow and thrive by acknowledging their humanity and their complexity.

  • From Successful Long-Term Weight Loss to Helping People Make Peace With Their Bodies and Their Food

Thirty plus years of conclusive and consistent evidence demonstrates that weight loss programs, contests and competitions; mainstays of traditional workplace wellness offerings, have little chance of actually helping people to lose weight or be healthier in the long term. In spite of this, people promoting these initiatives at the workplace inevitably claim that their program (unlike all the others) results in successful long-term weight loss.  Because of the growing evidence that these programs may negatively impact health for many people (1), it is critical to make the following distinction. Successful long-term weight loss can only be determined AFTER the program is over. Regardless of the length of the program; whether it is 2 weeks or three months or two years, claiming success while people are still in the program (or just after it ends) is disingenuous. This is because, without exception, once programs are over participants begin regaining their weight and a significant percentage end up weighing more than they did when they started. Instead of offering programs that result in frustration and weight cycling, we suggest investing in initiatives that help people make peace with their bodies and their food.

Take Home

We have provided numerous links and references if you want to read more about these important issues and there are lots of additional free resources on our website as well. In an effort to sum up the most important take homes from this information we would say that, for health and business professionals alike:

“The best, and probably the only way to ‘get’ employees to act like creative, thinking, responsible, autonomous adults is to treat them as if that is exactly what they are.”

We invite you to send in your additions to help move our vocabulary for organizational and employee wellbeing into the 21st century!

Additional Reference:

  1. Dharini M. Bhammar and Glenn A. Gaesser. “Health Risks Associated with Weight Cycling.” in “Wellness not Weight: Health at Every Size and Emotional Interviewing.” Ed. Ellen R. Glovsky. San Diego, CA: Cognella, 2014.

A 3-Question Litmus Test For Organizational and Employee Wellbeing Initiatives

Business is booming for well being at the workplace. Organizations are jumping on the Wellness Provisions of the Affordable Care ACT to the tune of an estimated at 8 billion dollars a year. Unfortunately, as one health care expert wrote in Forbes;

“This rapid escalation in employer investment has spawned a “Wild West” kind of market for wellness and disease management, with thousands of vendors overwhelming employers, often touting exaggerated claims of effectiveness.”

So, how can leaders make sense out of and evaluate the bevy of proposed initiatives with which they are being constantly bombarded. Certainly, the literature in terms of the documented efficacy of a proposed intervention can be a valuable source of information. For example, weight loss programs, contests and competitions are among the most common of employee well being initiatives. Yet we have 30 years of consistent, definitive research that clearly demonstrates that none of these initiatives result in sustained weight loss for any but a small minority of participants and the rest gain back all or more than all of their original lost weight. The resulting weight cycling can actually make people’s health worse.

Unfortunately, most leaders have neither the time nor the inclination to research each and every proposed initiative being offered by vendors and consultants. Fortunately, in our experience there is a relatively simple, science-based, 3-question litmus test that can go a long way towards determining whether an initiative is worthy of consideration. The test revolves around 3 well known concepts, autonomy, mastery and purpose – defined below:

  • Autonomy (employees being able to think and do for themselves)
  • Mastery (employees having opportunities to learn and grow, and become highly skilled)
  • Purpose (employees feeling their work is meaningful and connected to a greater purpose)

Let’s take a closer look at these concepts and see why they are so critical to organizational and employee well being:

Autonomy

The word comes from the ancient Greek – auto meaning “self” and nomos meaning “law” – so literally  – one who gives himself one’s own law. Human autonomy flows from the desire and ability to direct our own lives. At the most basic level it is about having freedom from external control or influence. In fact, autonomy is considered by psychologists to be one of the 3 (and perhaps the most important) innate human psychological needs.

Decades of research from all over the world clearly demonstrate that autonomy and human health are inextricably interconnected. As leading expert on population healthMichael Marmot writes:

 “Autonomy – how much you control your own life – and the opportunities you have for full social engagement and participation, are crucial for health, well-being and longevity.”

In terms of organizational well being and worker productivity, the research conclusions are strikingly similar.  In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink demonstrates quite conclusively that companies who offer employees greater autonomy, sometimes in radical doses, outperform their competitors.(1) And similarly, employees who work in jobs with high demands and little autonomy suffer from a litany of health maladies from heart disease to depression.

Highly successful companies have cultures that promote employee autonomy. Research demonstrates that such organizations grow 4 times faster and have 3 times less turnover.

  • Fed-Ex Days, originally started by the Australian software company Atlassian give employees 24 hours to work on projects of their own choosing resulting in some amazing outcomes. Why Fed-Ex Days? Because the products need to be “delivered” over night!
  • In Results-Only Work Environments (ROWES) employees are evaluated solely on how well they perform, not on how many hours they spend at their workstations.
  • Increasing numbers of companies are moving towards self-management, in which front line employees (nurses, machine operators, teachers, etc.) hold all the decision making power; from budgets, to hiring and firing, to establishing decision making guidelines to calling meetings. From manufacturing to healthcare, these companies are dominating their respective industries

Mastery

Research has also shown that the desire for mastery, the urge to overcome intellectual challenge and to get better at our chosen occupation, may be one of the best predictors of productivity at the workplace. When people have a high level of personal mastery, they are more committed to their organizations and take more initiative.(2)

Providing ongoing on the job training is one of the important ways that organizations provide opportunities for mastery for their employees. The Container Store is an example of an organization that takes mastery seriously. The company is constantly at or near the top of Fortune’s annual list of best places to work. While the average company in the retailing sector provides 7 hours of training in the first year for new employees, The Container Store provides 263 hours of training in the first year!

Deliberately Developmental Organizations (DDOs) take the mastery concept to an entirely new level. These companies nurture a culture that puts the inextricable interdependence of business and personal development front and center for every employee, every day. The goal is to help employees reach higher levels of adult development, the gradual evolution of people’s meaning making systems and psychological capabilities. For these companies:

“A deliberately developmental culture is rooted in the unshakable belief that business can be an ideal context for people’s growth evolution and flourishing – and that suchpersonal development may be the secret weapon for business success in the future.” (3).

Here are just a few examples of the truly amazing ways DDOs  are prioritizing employee development.

  • The underlying organizational purpose at Decurion (L.A based company involved with movie exhibition real estate and senior living) is “to create places for people to flourish.”
  • At Connecticut based Bridgewater, the most successful Hedge Fund in the world, the heart of the culture is “radical truth” and “radical transparency.” All meetings are taped and available for anyone to listen to. And if your name comes up in a meeting to which you were not invited you will be notified and invited to listen to what was said about you.
  • E-commerce tech company Next Jump has an explicit no firing policy; a firm commitment to support and help develop employees in good times and bad. The underlying dedication to personal growth is clear. “We’ve engineered tools and programs that foster a culture of leadership and growth. Our goal is for each Next Jumper to lead a successful life, both at work and at home.”
  • In all three companies, once you can perform your role well, it means that your job is not “stretching” you enough and it is probably time for a new role and new challenges. And at all three companies, all employees at every level of the organization are taught, as part of their job, procedures and practices to help them evaluate their interactions with each other – something that happens on a regular basis, many times every working day.

Purpose

The Gallup Organization has identified five essential elements of employee well being:career, social, financial, physical and community, with career well being – liking what you do every day and having meaning and purpose in your work and your life – being the most impactful.

And according to the findings of the “The Energy Project” multi-year research involving more than 14,000 global respondents in more than 24 industries;

“No single factor in our study comes close to influencing people’s job satisfaction and likelihood to stay at an organization as much as the sense that their work gives them a sense of meaning and purpose.”

The Firms of Endearment (FOEs) are 28 widely loved companies that have as their underlying fundamental goal – maximizing purpose – not profits. You will recognize the names of many including Southwest Airlines, UPS, Tata, Costco, Panera, Google, and The Container Store. In the words of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey:

“To tap this deep wellspring of human motivation, companies need to shift from profit maximization to purpose maximization. By recognizing and responding to the hunger for meaning that is quintessential to the human condition, companies can unlock vast sources of passion, commitment, creativity, and energy that lie largely dormant in their team members and other stakeholders. Purpose-driven motivation is intrinsic motivation and is far more effective and powerful than extrinsic financial incentives.”

So, how do these “purpose driven” companies do in their respective fields? The FOEs have outperformed the S&P 500 by 14 times and the Good to Great Companies by 6 times over a period of 15 years. (4)

Take Home: Applying the Test

How can this test be applied in your organization? As a start, try asking these questions about any proposed initiative for organizational or employee wellbeing:

  • Will this initiative promote or inhibit employee autonomy?
  • Will this initiative increase or decrease opportunities for employee mastery?
  • Will this initiative enhance or detract from employee’s feeling that their work is meaningful and/or connected to a greater purpose?

Go ahead and give this litmus test a try in your organization. Let us know how it turns out. Jon and Rosie at Salveopartners. 

Additional References:

  1. Daniel Pink. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. New York. Riverhead Books, 2009.
  2. Peter M. Senge. “The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization.” New York: Doubleday, 2006.
  3. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. Harvard Business Review Press, Boston Mass. 2016
  4. Sisodia, Wolfe & Sheth. Firms of Endearment: How World-Class companies Profit from Passion and Purpose. New Jersey. Pearson Education, 2014

This post first appeared on LinkedIn in 2016