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