You Can’t Use a Paperclip to Solve Wellbeing Issues

In the show MacGyver, the lead character was known for creatively using objects and resources to help escape life-threatening situations. In one episode, he diffused a bomb at the last second using a paperclip. Real life is not so simple — especially when it comes to changing human behavior. Yet the way we typically approach change is just about as ridiculous as MacGyver trying to use a paperclip to improve wellbeing; we are looking to the wrong type of solutions to solve very complex issues.

Technical vs. Adaptive Challenges

There are two main types of challenges that organizations and individuals face: technical and adaptive. Each requires a different approach.

  • Technical challenges are those challenges where existing knowledge can be applied to bridge the gap between the current reality and where you aspire to be. With technical challenges, people can draw on existing knowledge and experience to solve the problems.1 For example, perhaps your organization is preparing to move locations or install a new computer system. If you’ve gone through similar changes before, you can look back at the processes and steps taken, what did and didn’t work, what vendors you used, etc., and then start the fairly predictable change process. Or let’s say you need to replace an appliance in your home. If you’ve done this before, you can take the same steps to research brands and stores and figure out what will work the best to meet your needs and budget.
  • Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are more complex. With these types of challenges, the gap between the current state and the state you aspire to be cannot be closed using existing approaches; it can only be closed by people reframing how they think and operate. Adaptive work is hard because it challenges our deeply held beliefs, and the values that made us successful in the past may become less relevant. 1 Adaptive work involves experiencing loss in letting go of certain elements of the past — loss of a way of doing things, loss of loyalty to the way things have always been done, loss of feelings of competence, loss of authority and reporting relationships, and more.2

The reality is that, when it comes to individual and organizational change, the majority of challenges we face requires adaptive work. However, in our quick-fix society, we keep trying to apply technical solutions to adaptive challenges; it’s the wrong approach — like using an auto mechanic when you need an electrician. Here are just a few examples of our stuckness in looking to technical solutions to solve adaptive challenges:

  • We reduce weight loss down to the technical aspects of calories in vs. calories out (with epic failure rates and long-term unintended consequences) rather than addressing the complexities of thinking, how people view and value themselves, their relationship with food and movement, stress and more (which are all adaptive challenges). Most people know what they need to do to lose weight. The weight itself isn’t the issue; it’s much more complex than that — which is why 95% of people fail to sustain weight loss after programs end.
  • Organizations try to approach culture change as a program or event (which leads to following fairly cookie-cutter steps that should work if the organization were made up of mindless machines rather than thinking human beings). Yet, as noted in the book, Firms of Endearment, “in the twenty-first century, we can no longer view business organizations as merely ‘rational machines.’ Rather, they must be viewed as ‘dynamic and increasingly unpredictable organisms.’” In other words, transformation demands innovative and flexible thinking to guide the ever-changing journey; it demands an adaptive solution.
  • Many organizations try to approach leadership development in a mechanistic way. They look at the pieces and parts of what competencies and skills make up a good leader and aim to “fix” weak areas rather than viewing leaders as whole and part of the living system. However, developing quality leaders requires more than building skills; it demands supporting leaders to increase their self-awareness, elicit better thinking and develop quality relationships — all of which are adaptive challenges.

It is no wonder that most attempts for individual change fail and most employee wellness programs don’t work in improving individual wellbeing. People are not machines but are complex, thinking beings. Effectively leading and supporting individual and organizational change is not about forcing it on people; instead it requires deliberately creating the conditions for pausing and new thinking, thus creating a foundation for adaptive change work. This means shifting from providing solutions for people to having the locus of responsibility lie within those individuals and with the collective intelligence of employees at all levels.2

If organizations want to have engaged and intrinsically motivated employees who can succeed with adaptive challenges, they need to create the conditions for:

  • Autonomy (people being able to think for themselves)
  • Mastery (people having opportunities to learn and grow and become highly skilled)
  • Purpose (people feeling their work is meaningful and connected to a greater purpose and vision) 3

The more employees are given the space to be the authors of their own individual wellbeing journey and can be a part of leading organizational change within the context of their relationships with their colleagues, the greater the likelihood that change will be successful. Firms of Endearment and Deliberately Developmental Organizations are great examples of creating such conditions.

Zappos is another great example. Employees are encouraged never to accept or be comfortable with the status quo because being unable to respond quickly and adapt to change can be devastating. So Zappos employees are encouraged, supported, and recognized for bringing forward new ideas (autonomy). These individuals are provided constant opportunities for growth and development (mastery); and the leaders ensure all employees have great clarity on the culture and vision, and how they fit into the picture (purpose). 4

It’s time to put down the paperclip (unless you have a stack of papers you need to fasten) and stop using mismatched solutions to solve the complex challenges of the human experience.



  1. Heifetz, R.A. & Laurie, D.L. (December 2001). The Work of Leadership. Harvard Business Review, 131-141
  1. Van Velsor, E. (March/April 2003). Learning New Ways: A Conversation with Ronald A. Heifetz. LIA, Volume 23(1), 19-22.
  1. Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books
  1. Hsieh, T. (2010). Delivering Happiness: A Path To Profits, Passion and Purpose. New York: Business Plus

“Engagement” in Wellness Programs: Separating Fact from Fiction

We receive e-mails almost weekly from various wellness vendors, professional organizations, and publications with articles, webinars, and programs offering solutions for increasing participation and building “engagement” into wellness programs. However, in every case it is evident there is a fundamental confusion on what engagement really is and why it matters. Let’s look at how Miriam-Webster defines these two terms:

  • Engagement:  an emotional involvement or commitment
  • Participate:  to take part in an activity or event

In healthcare, there has recently been an increased focus on patient engagement and the patient experience — recognizing how important both are to the quality of patient care and health outcomes. If you ask most healthcare providers, they say they would much rather have patients engaged in their own health and treatment plans versus just showing up expecting the healthcare team to “magically” do all of the work (i.e., participating).

In education, there is also an increased focus on engagement and how that translates into the student experience. In an article discussing the importance of engagement versus participation on college campuses, the authors argue that “Rather than promoting engagement primarily through programs and publications, campuses could inspire students by transforming their entire experience.” Again, if you ask most teachers, they say they would much rather have students engaged in their own learning versus just showing up to take part in class and do the minimum to get by (i.e., participating).

And organizational leaders who understand the value and importance of employee engagement and the employee experience focus on creating the conditions for highly engaged employees. There are more than 50 identified conceptual definitions of “employee engagement.” The Conference Board (a global, independent business membership and research association working since 1916 to provide organizations with the practical knowledge they need to improve their performance and better serve society) assembled a committee of experts in 2007 that came up with this composite definition:

“Employee engagement is a heightened emotional and intellectual connection that an employee has for his/her job, organization, manager, or coworkers that, in turn, influences him/her to apply additional discretionary effort to his/her work.”1

Engagement is said to occur when employees:

  • Know what’s expected of them
  • Feel valued
  • Are able to leverage their strengths
  • Have quality relationships at work
  • Are cognitively stimulated 2

Engaged employees are not only satisfied, but they go above and beyond to help the organization achieve success. Disengaged employees, on the other hand, are apathetic, toxic to the work environment, and can erode the culture and negatively impact productivity. Herein lies the issue…

In the world of worksite wellness/health promotion, the term “engagement” is often used synonymously and interchangeably with “participation.” Clearly however, participation and engagement are NOT the same, not even close. When people refer to “wellness engagement rates,” they are really referring to program participation or completion. Employees can participate in (and even complete) a program without being engaged. In fact, the more incentives are used and the more hoops employees have to jump through to earn the incentive, the more their participation becomes compliance-focused and engagement drops. Likewise, employees can be very much engaged in their job and engaged in their own personal wellbeing yet not participate in programs or activities.

So why should those involved with employee wellbeing care about semantics? Because employee engagement is powerfully connected to individual wellbeing:

  • Highly engaged employees miss fewer days of work due to illness and are more resilient with respect to organizational change.3
  • Total cholesterol and triglyceride levels significantly decrease as engagement levels increase; likewise, cholesterol and triglyceride levels increase as engagement levels decrease.4
  • 62% of engaged employees feel their work lives positively affect their physical health and 78% believe their work lives benefit them psychologically.5
  • 54% of actively disengaged employees feel their work lives negatively affected their physical health and 51% feel their work lives negatively affect their psychological wellbeing.5
  • Actively disengaged employees are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety as are engaged employees.6
  • Individuals in workgroups in the bottom quartile of engagement average 62% more accidents than workgroups in the top quartile of engagement.7

And according to the latest research, some 70% of U.S. employees are not engaged; costing businesses in this country 100s of billions of dollars every year. That’s of much greater significance than the unfounded ROI and healthcare cost-savings claims from many wellness programs.

Confusing participation with engagement is problematic, particularly so for employee wellbeing since the typical 4P (pry, prod, poke, and punish) “wellness or else” program is more likely to diminish engagement than it is to improve it.

So the next time you hear a vendor, consultant, or program provider referring to their “engagement rates,” beware. Ask how these individuals measure engagement and how they distinguish it from participation. Our guess is they will have difficulty providing an answer but rather will start describing all of the programs employees can complete (which they then define as being engaged in the program).

Bottom Line:

If you want to create the conditions for thriving organizational and employee wellbeing, focus on supporting engagement, not coercing participation in wellness programs.

Watch this great video by my colleague, Dr. Jon Robison, on “Words & the Art of Treating Employees like Adults.”


  1. Marciano, P.L., Ph.D., “Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work:  Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT™.”
  2. Harter, J.K., Schmidt, F.L., & Keys, C.L.M., Well-being in the workplace and its relationship to business outcomes: A review of the Gallup studies. In C.L.M. Keys & H. Haidt (Eds.), “Flourishing:  the positive person and the good life” (pp. 205-224). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  3. Watson Wyatt, “Driving business results through continuous engagement.
  4. Harter, J.K., Canedy, J. & Stone, A., “A longitudinal study of engagement at work and physciologic indicators of health.” Presented at the 2008 Work, Stress, and Health Conference, Washington, D.C.
  5. Crabtree, S., “Engagement keeps the doctor away.” Gallup Management Journal Online, 1-5.
  6. Agrawal, S. & Harter, J. K.,”Engagement at work predicts change in depression and anxiety status in the next year.” Omaha, NE: Gallup.
  7. Senge, P.M.,The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization.”