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.

10 Revelations on the Present & Future of Workplace Wellbeing

Huge changes are underfoot in the workplace in recent years, and the organizational and employee wellbeing spaces are no exception. From an organizational standpoint, leaders and HR executives are increasingly realizing that while the traditional focus on leadership, culture and engagement is still important there may actually be something even more fundamental that is keeping businesses from fully thriving. As explained inDeloitte’s recent survey of more than 7,000 leaders and HR executives worldwide:

“After three years of struggling to drive employee engagement and retention, improve leadership, and build a meaningful culture, executives see a need to redesign the organization…The days of the top-down hierarchical organization are slowly coming to an end, but changing the organization chart is only a small part of the transition to a network of teams. The larger, more important part is to change how an organization actually works.”

From the employee standpoint, the wellness industry has a history of making problematic claims about the impact of their programming – as non-partisan expert and Rand senior scientist Soeren Mattke explained in a recent interview:

“The industry went in with promises of 3 to 1 and 6 to 1 based on health care savings alone – then research came out that said that’s not true – then they said ok we are cost neutral – and now as research says maybe not even cost neutral they say but is really about productivity which we can’t really measure but it’s an enormous return.”

And the obsessive focus on outdated behavior change approaches mostly relating to the physical health aspects of the employee experience has been largely ineffective and often iatrogenic. As workplace wellness guru Dr. Dee Edington commented:

“The field has been riding the behavioral change horse for 40 years                 with little to show for it.”

If we add to these realizations the movement by enlightened leaders to embrace the realities of organizations as complex living systems; like the weather, ecosystems and human beings rather than monolithic machines, the pressing need for change looms large indeed!

With this foundation, we suggest (not in any particular order) 10 revelations on organizational and employee wellbeing, each consisting of a short statement about the current state of affairs and a prediction and/or hope for the future. As always we invite you to suggest you own revelations to help us move our industry into the 21st century.

1. Organizational Design

Currently: Hierarchical, top-down, command and control pyramidal power structures are today’s dominant template for organizational design. In fact, the hierarchical, boss-subordinate relationship cannot stack any other way. The problem is that these complex, rigid structures are outdated, painfully slow to adapt monoliths in this time of unprecedented, rapidly changing business landscapes.

Future: Dramatic demographic upheavals in the working population, the huge impact of digital technology and social media, the rapid rate of change in every aspect of business and the onslaught of non-traditional work situations (contingent, contract, and part time workers make up 1/3 of the workforce) are driving an urgent need to redesign and reorganize our organizations. Some wildly successful companies have even done away with these hierarchies of power altogether.

2. “Medicalizing” The Workplace

Currently: Bio-metric screens and health risk assessments are still a mainstay of employee corporate wellness programs in spite of the fact that the literature is clear that they do not save money or make a significant impact on health behaviors and they hold a high potential for creating iatrogenic consequences.

Future: More and more employers will realize the limitations and pitfalls of these approaches and begin to consider health care consumerism as a more efficacious and cost effective path for helping employees navigate our complex health system.

3. “Culture of Health”

Currently: The corporate wellness industry typically describes a “culture of health” by referencing the existence of programs like biometric screens, health risk assessments, exercise and weight loss initiatives and stress management programs.

Future: More corporate wellness industry professionals will embrace organizational experts’ definitions of a “culture of health.”  An organization is considered to be “healthy” when it is whole, consistent and complete and when its management, operations and culture are unified. Such companies are characterized by minimal politics and confusion, high morale and productivity, and low turnover.

4. “FUSION” of Organizational and Employee Wellbeing

Currently: As we can readily see from the previous example, for the most part these two spaces have largely conducted out of separate silos. In fact, it has not been unusual for the wellness, medical, safety, and EAP providers to operate largely in isolation from each other.

Future: All parties involved will realize that the “health” of an organization and the “health” of its employees are inextricably interconnected. All aspects of the employee experience must be connected with the mission, vision and purpose of the organization. This necessitates breaking down silos and having a coordinated effort through the Fusion of organizational and employee wellbeing.

5. Motivation for Change

Currently: In spite of a complete lack of evidence of efficacy and growing evidence of iatrogenicity, most change initiatives at the workplace are still mired in 20th century behaviorist approaches. Standard procedure is for rewards to be doled out for participation and behavior change, and punishments to be levied for non participation and non compliance.

Future: Especially thanks to the work of Alfie Kohn, Daniel Pink and Edward Deci, business and health professionals alike are beginning to see the critical need for intrinsic motivation to support sustainable change. Soon we will see “creating the conditions for change” replacing “getting people to change” as the modus operandi for all change initiatives at the workplace.

6. Weight Loss

Currently: In spite of more than 3 decades of consistent, conclusive research demonstrating the failure of weight loss programs, contests and competitions to result in sustainable weight loss for any but a small minority of participants, and growing evidence of iatrogenicity, they remain some of the most common employee wellness programs.

Future: We have begun to see more questioning of the validity and safety of these interventions. Our hope is that there will soon be a total move away from weight-centered initiatives towards offering employees programs that help them to find peace with their bodies and their food.

7. Mindfulness, Stress Management, Meditation and Resilience Programs

Currently: With stress now formally recognized as a major source of pain, anxiety and health care costs at the workplace, there is a growing interest on the part of organizations in programs to help employees cope with workplace stress.

Future: Organizations will realize that without a focus on changing the actual sources of workplace stress, programs for individuals are unlikely to have a significant sustained impact. Highly respected Stanford University professor of organizational behaviorJeffrey Pfeffer, summed up the problem this way:

“Many of the individual behaviors you are focusing on in your health and wellness programs (such as) stop smoking, eat better, exercise more,  are in fact the consequences of the environments in which they (employees)are working. If you work people to death, of course they are going to smoke more, drink more and eat worse.”

8. ROI vs. VOI vs. ??

Currently: Because research does not support that employee wellness programs deliver a positive ROI, it has been suggested that VOI might be a better way to evaluate their worth. Unfortunately, at present there is little evidence to support this claim. Dr. Soeren Mattke, summed up the research on the impact of these programs in an article in the prestigious Health Affairs blog:

“Those changes are not large enough, and the relationship between health risks and spending too weak, to result in reduction of health care cost, let alone in return of investment.”

Future: Organizations will move away from both ROI and VOI and instead embrace a broader, more holistic and highly customizable approach.  By incorporating metrics that evaluate all of the elements of wellbeing, organizations will be able to see clearly whether changes are moving in the desired direction.

9. Coaching

Currently: Most coaching today is still focused on changing behaviors, withMotivational Interviewing and Stages of Change the dominant approaches. The focus on individual behaviors and extrinsic motivation are throwbacks to the 17th century desire for control and the 20th century’s Skinnerian “get people to change” behavior modification. However, since behaviors are the outward manifestations of thoughts and feelings, trying to DO differently without thinking differently is doomed to fail as most people inevitably fall back on deeply rooted habits.

Future: Organizations will embrace coaching techniques that focus on helping people to be better thinkers. Rather than the coach being in the driver’s seat asking questions in to “get” a client to change some health-related behavior, with Intrinsic Coaching the client is doing most of the work. The coach helps to create the conditions for people to be the authors of their own journey. The client walks away with something personally meaningful rather than some polite agreement for ideas guided by the coach.

10. Wellness/Wellbeing Programming

Currently: Traditional wellness initiatives have typically begun with biometric screens and health risk assessments, and then some combination of behavior change programs, the most common of which usually relate to exercise and nutrition. Some companies are also adding programs to address other areas of wellbeing; financial, social, mental, community, etc.

Future: Business leaders and health professionals will realize that without addressing the underlying culture of an organization, the likelihood of change initiatives of any kind having much of an impact is slim. In our 7 Points of Transformation for creating thriving workplace cultures, wellbeing programming does not even enter the picture until step six;  after we have worked with the organization to assess the culture, create the blueprint for change, develop quality leaders, create a supportive climate, and rethink and update strategies for promoting change.

Take Home: We look forward to hearing your thoughts on these revelations. If you find the approaches discussed here exciting please feel free to visit our website for lots of free resources. Also, our next online Certificate Training is now open for registration. If being a “Paradigm Pioneer” is appealing to you, please check it out and feel free to contact us with any questions.

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:


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


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.


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

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

Important but Uncommon Ways to Cultivate Happy, Thriving Employees (for Lasting Organizational Change) Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we covered how to assess and address employee attitudes at work and ways to change corporate language to support employee and organizational wellbeing. Here, we explore another uncommon way to cultivate employee happiness: supporting Intrinsic thinking.

Research over the past two decades has conclusively demonstrated that to cultivate happy and thriving employees and to leverage sustainable change, organizations must foster self-leadership and emphasize intrinsic motivation (where people can find meaning and enjoyment in their work). Personal autonomy and happiness are inextricably interconnected.

An individual’s values and thoughts are what guide intrinsic motivation, so it makes sense to support the skills that can help a person influence and manage his or her thoughts in constructive ways.

The “Best” Way to Think

Organizations can create an environment that fosters intrinsic motivation by actually helping employees become “better” thinkers! In the 1960s, in collaboration with colleagues at MIT, Robert S. Hartman developedThe Hartman Value Profile (HVP), which measures the hierarchy of values that undergird thinking patterns and how these values translate into personal choice. This might sound a little “fluffy,” but values thinking is based in hard science, and it can be measured and changed. Essentially, the HVP is a mathematical assessment of thinking patterns.

Hartman identified three dimensions of valuing or thinking that guide our choices: Systemic (S), Extrinsic (E), and Intrinsic (I). Here’s a brief overview:

• S = Systemic thinking values abstract concepts and ideas. It manifests as black/white and either/or thinking, and is associated with preconceived ideas about how things should be.

For example, if we over-value others via Systemic thinking, we may have an idea of how things should go with a project at work, but then when the unpredictability of life happens and throws us a curveball, we’re likely to get frustrated and jump to blame.

• E = Extrinsic thinking values function. As a result, Extrinsic thinking relies on labels, categories, and achievements and treats people more like things – as if they were replicable and predictable.

For example, if we over-value others through Extrinsic thinking, we may only express appreciation when people do what they are supposed to (e.g., meet a health status measure, complete a project or task like we would, etc.), and we will likely resort to behavior modification to try to “get” them to behave in a desired way.

• I = Intrinsic thinking values the uniqueness of individuals. It takes into account not only what is seen and ideas about what is seen, but it also recognizes that there is far more going on than meets the eye. It also affirms the inherent value in other people simply because they exist. This kind of thinking takes a bit longer to activate than both Systemic and Extrinsic thinking and requires a short mental pause.

Hartman’s research clearly demonstrated that, although all three dimensions of valuing/thinking are necessary, the optimal hierarchy is Intrinsic>Extrinsic>Systemic (I>E>S). In simple terms, this means that the most constructive thinking occurs when we value people more than things, and when we value things more than mere ideas of things or people. (Read this article for an in-depth discussion of these types of thinking.)

Cultivating a different outcome: Help your employees become better thinkers

Unfortunately, organizations often take a backwards approach, unintentionally fostering an S>E>I thinking hierarchy, where leaders over-value employees based on preconceived ideas about what they “should” be doing, or based on employees’ function or behaviors.

Practicing Intrinsic thinking on your own will provide the encouragement and opportunity for leaders and employees to do the same. Here are some practical ways you can begin:

• Practice Pausing. A person’s first thought usually stems from deeply rooted, habitual thinking (i.e., Systemic thinking) and is typically limited. Pausing just a few seconds before acting creates space for Intrinsic thinking, greater self-awareness and the ability to make more thoughtful choices. For example, an employee is facing a problem and comes to you for help. Your first thought (S>E>I) would likely be to answer in a way that would help fix the situation. Pausing in that moment can help you recognize that by instead asking your employee questions, you are actually supporting that person’s autonomy and mastery. After a mental pause, your next action is different. Asking a question like “What solution would you recommend, based on your experience?” not only takes the pressure off from you, but it also creates the conditions for your employee to grow and leverage intrinsic motivation (and by extension, happiness).

• Recover from Perfectionism. Engaging in S>E>I thinking means striving for some ideal of perfection — and when “perfect” doesn’t happen, people get frustrated with themselves and others. In fact, perfectionism is a key characteristic of a fixed mindset, which hinders people from success. Focusing less on an ideal result and instead embracing the journey will build resiliency and a growth mindset — which is correlated with success! Recovering from perfectionism helps create the conditions for ongoing personal growth and development, and also sends the powerful message to others that they can let go of perfection as well.

• Challenge your Fixed Mindset (S>E>I Thinking). A fixed mindset (based in S>E>I thinking) is powerful: the “shoulds” and ideas about who you think people are come from deep-seated personal beliefs about risk, failure, and fear of being judged. Such thinking prevails, even when you know these fears and beliefs are illogical. One of the best ways to challenge this kind of thinking is to take an action that makes you uncomfortable (something that you feel you “shouldn’t” do, which may provoke a visceral reaction at the thought of doing it), but feels doable.

For example, if you avoid trying new things because you are afraid of being judged or viewed as “imperfect,” try intentionally putting yourself into a situation where you can’t be good or perfect — and encourage others to do the same. For example, if you have no rhythm, take a dance class. If you can’t carry a tune, sing karaoke somewhere. As silly as these suggestions seem, they can do wonders to help develop agrowth mindset (aligned with I>E>S thinking). When you challenge your fixed mindset, you realize that the horrible result you’ve imagined didn’t occur, and you are able to disable the dominance of your fixed mindset, which leaves space for Intrinsic thinking to emerge.

• Invest in Intrinsic Coaching® Development. Intrinsic Coaching® is the only methodology to date that has been shown (measured by the HVP) to increase individuals’ Intrinsic thinking patterns and help them create the conditions to elicit I>E>S in others. People who have completed this program report a shift in how they view other people, resulting in less frustration with others, fewer negative consequences of stress, and higher job satisfaction. Consider Intrinsic Coaching® as part of your organization’s training and development to ensure that you are able to support better thinking in the workplace.

We all have an innate desire to be recognized, seen, and valued for who we are as individuals – and just because we are at the office doesn’t mean this powerful need goes away. Cultivating a workplace culture where leaders and employees are able to replace dysfunctional thought patterns with Intrinsic thinking that values people for who they are will not only foster employee happiness but will ultimately improve both individual and organizational performance.1

Read Part 1 of this article for more ideas about how to support employee happiness; learn more about the benefits of intrinsic thinking here.

Curious about the happiness of your employees? Take our Free Manager’s Audit to get a pulse on your employee and organizational health in under 3 minutes!


  1. The Arbinger Institute (2010). Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Important but Uncommon Ways to Cultivate Happy, Thriving Employees (for Lasting Organizational Change) Part 1

In order to improve organizational wellbeing and employee engagement, leaders and employees may be asked to do things differently. However, people are typically not provided the development needed to support sustainable change. In fact, although many organizations have increased attention on employee engagement, research shows that it hasn’t improved much over the last decade.1 For lasting organizational change, focus on creating the conditions in which change can happen; a key component is supporting employees so that they can thrive.

A “thriving employee” is happy, energized, and engaged at work — and organizations with thriving employees will experience profound benefits. According to a 2012 Harvard Business Review study, across industries and job types, thriving employees:

  • demonstrate 16% better overall performance (reported by their managers) and 125% less burnout (self-reported) than their peers.
  • are 32% more committed to their organization.
  • are 46% more satisfied with their jobs.
  • miss fewer days of work.
  • report significantly fewer doctor visits.

Strategies for Success

Consider implementing these strategies to develop a workplace culture that supports happy, thriving employees:

  1. Take employee happiness seriously.

Recent research indicates that employee happiness is an important predictor of business performance. In addition to boosting employee engagement, employees who are happy produce more than unhappy ones over the long term.

Happiness is a variable that can change often, so it is important to get a pulse on employee happiness levels frequently to identify and address any problems early. Some companies use smartphone apps that provide managers a daily update on employee happiness. A simple way to gauge employee happiness is to ask employees to drop a green, yellow, or red chip into a transparent container at the end of the day (or week) to indicate how they felt about work during that time; this exercise offers insight into how employees are feeling with a quick glance.

It’s important to go beyond simply gauging employee happiness; you also need to address trends toward unhappiness before it becomes a widespread problem. Everybody is allowed to have a bad day now and again, but if you notice that more and more employees are unhappy for more and more of the time, it’s time to take action. An obvious way to find out what factors may be contributing to employee unhappiness is to ask employees directly. However, if your workplace is suffering from low morale, it’s possible that employees won’t feel comfortable sharing and you’ll need to assess potential contributing factors on your own. For example, are there any work-related requirements that have been recently implemented? A slew of people quitting or layoffs? A big project that might be causing employees stress and pressure to put in extra hours?

To get a jump-start on addressing employee happiness, consider these tips for how to help employees love coming into work.

  1. Change corporate language.

We know that human beings aren’t machines who can produce specific outcomes in predicable ways. Yet many organizations continue to communicate about employee and organizational wellbeing from this outdated perspective, based on a 17th-century scientific worldview that conceptualizes the universe and all of its components as machines.

Words have the power to shape the way people think and feel. Let employees know they are valued by communicating to them in a way that supports an updated worldview, which reflects the realities of our non-linear, non-mechanistic, holistic world. To best support thriving employees, move away from any corporate language that focuses on patriarchal, mechanistic, reductionist language.

For example, instead of using language about:

•  “participation,” focus on engagement
• “productivity,” talk about creating the conditions that allow people to do their best work
•  “wellness,” focus on holistic wellbeing
•  “human resources” or “human capital,” discuss human partners, people, or employees
“motivating” people, shift your focus to how your organization can support people to grow and develop
•  “personal responsibility,” explore the connection and relationships involved with both employee and organizational wellbeing.

Changing the way you communicate will send your employees the message that you value them as whole, autonomous human beings who have more to offer than simply completing a function at work. This will not only support employee happiness and engagement, but also improve organizational health and provide a foundation from which to make positive, lasting change.

In Part 2, we discuss an important third way to cultivate thriving, happy employees: supporting different and “better” ways of thinking.


  1. Gostick, A. & Elton, C. (2012). All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results. New York: Free Press.

How to Become a Place Where Millennials Want To Work

In just five years, Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1995 and currently under 33 years of age) will make up 40% of the workforce in America; in 10 years, they will comprise 75% of the workforce. If your organization wants to remain competitive, you must address the unique needs of this growing group. The best place to start is to build a foundation for a thriving workplace culture and to foster individual autonomy.

What Millennials Want

According to 2014 research from the Intelligence Group, a division of the Creative Artists Agency that focuses on analysis of youth-focused consumer preferences and trend forecasting, Millennials are looking for employers who:

  • Offer meaningful work. (64% say it’s a priority for them to make the world a better place.)
  • Foster collaboration, not competition. (88% prefer a collaborative work-culture rather than a competitive one.)
  • Provide employee autonomy. (72% would like to be their own boss. But if they do have to work for someone else, 79% prefer that boss to be more like a coach or mentor.)
  • Provide flexibility and support work-life integration. (Since work and life now blend together inextricably, 74% want flexible work schedules, and 88% want work-life integration.)

What Your Organization Can Do

Many workplaces offer options like wellness programs, flex-time, and maternity or paternity leave. While these may offer some benefits for employees, such programs and policies do not necessarily foster meaningful personal growth and development. They are elements of workplace climate, not workplace culture. (Confused about the difference between climate and culture? Read this.)

In order to appeal to Millennials and support their need for personal growth and development, it is essential to focus on cultivating a thriving workplace culture. Here’s how to get started:

1. Clarify and align core values. Millennials want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and they are looking for employers who offer them meaningful work. If your organization hasn’t already, clarify your company’s core values, the two or three behavioral traits that lie at the heart of your organization’s identity. (These are not to be confused with what Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Advantage, calls permission-to-playvalues like “honesty” or “integrity,” which are not what sets your organization apart and uniquely defines you.) One of the best ways to identify your core values is to look at the traits that are inherent and natural for your organization, and have been for a long time; what are the qualities of the employees who already embody what is best about the organization?

For example, Patagonia’s core values are central to everything they do. Here is how they describe their values:

Our values reflect those of a business started by a band of climbers and surfers, and the minimalist style they promoted… For us at Patagonia, a love of wild and beautiful places demands participation in the fight to save them, and to help reverse the steep decline in the overall environmental health of our planet.

Zappos is also well known for their core values, and intentionally living them and ensuring all business practices are guided by them. Some of their core values include:

  • Deliver WOW through service
  • Embrace and drive change
  • Create fun and a little weirdness
  • Build a positive team and family spirit

As you can see by these examples, your core values reflect your organization’s culture and your employment brand by framing the entire employee experience. Once you’ve clarified your core values, involve employees in living them on a daily basis.

How your organization can support this:

  • Offer a Culture and Visioning Workshop. People support what they help create, so provide employees the opportunity to describe in detail what the employee experience looks like when everyone is living the core values. What behaviors will they see that are consistent with core values? What behaviors might sabotage the core values? Let employees see how they align with core values and vision as individuals, and how their work contributes to living the values and vision. With this foundation, employees can begin creating their development path, which will support meaningful work.
  • Offer a quarterly Workplace Culture Workshop. Once employees have collectively created clarity around the behaviors that reflect the company culture, they will be able to create structure to nurture and protect your organization’s brand. Part of this structure includes supporting and holding each other accountable, so offer employees the opportunity to do so in these workshops. Have employees connect with peers and managers to reflect on how they see themselves and others behaving in a way that is or is not consistent with the core values and workplace culture. Not only will this address Millennials’ need for collaboration and meaningful work, but it will also bring to light any glaring problems or issues before too much damage has been done.
  • Use your core values as a litmus test for everything you do – from hiring to recognition and even firing. Because leaders profoundly shape employees’ experience of the culture, every leader and manager within your organization needs to live the core values and create the conditions where employees feel valued; otherwise, all bets are off in terms of having a high performing organization and retaining Millennials. Assuming you have leaders who walk the talk, base employee recognition on how people are living out the core values and contributing to a thriving workplace culture.

2. Provide physical and mental space where employees have an opportunity to “pause.” In his best-selling book, “Leadership from the Inside Out,” Kevin Cashman describes how too often people allow themselves to be overcome by busyness. We are unhealthily attached to our smartphones, and too caught up and distracted to take the necessary time to sift through life’s complexity and find purpose. Many Millennial employees are unconvinced that excessive work demands are worth the sacrifices to their personal life. In fact, Millennials know what the research shows: to be productive and engaged, employees need to find ways to recharge during the day. Organizations that actively seek ways to help people integrate their personal and professional lives will have energized employees who are better able to bring their best selves to work each day.

How your organization can support this:

  • Deliberately schedule play into the work week. Organizations whose employees engage in high-level thinking (e.g., Google, 3M) deliberately schedule play into the workday; they recognize that adopting a childlike mindset opens people up to alternative ways of thinking. Although play can include physical activities (e.g., setting up a Ping-Pong table in the break room), it is really more of a mindset; the key is that employees need to feel safe about pursuing occasional tangential interests.
  • Create an environment that positions people to do their best work. Some people need quiet space to allow for focus and concentration, while others benefit from collaboration. Create spaces that allow people to work well, but also to play and relax. Consider repurposing a meeting room into relaxation space for reflection, meditation or short naps.
  • Support breaks and vacations. In his book, “The Best Place to Work,” Ron Friedman asserts that people have a biological need for rest that’s as strong as our need for food and water. Yet personal time – including vacations – has become infected with work through smartphone technology that compels many to check company email frequently. FullContact, a progressive software company in Denver, recognizes the importance of rest. In 2012, they implemented a program that pays each employee $7,500 to take their family on vacation each year. However, in order to receive the bonus, employees must first agree to 3 strict provisions, as outlined on the blog of their CEO, Bart Lorang:
    1. You have to go on vacation, or you don’t get the money.
    2. You must disconnect.
    3. You can’t work while on vacation.

Lorang explains how this seemingly expensive program benefits the entire organization: “It’s an investment into the long-term happiness of our employees, which in turn leads to the sustained growth of the company.”

Other simple things you can do to support the human need for rest include leaving time between meetings, encouraging employees to take a quick walk, and providing time for socialization.

3. Generously support professional AND personal development. Millennials are looking for organizations that truly value them, not just as cogs in the company machine, but as people who are thinking, evolving, and complex-systems capable. Show your Millennials (and all of your employees!) that you value everything they bring to the table by helping them take advantage of developmental opportunities that will broaden their horizons. Whether they choose courses or conferences to enhance their professional skills, or can benefit from programs or a professional coach to help them grow personally (a cornerstone of highly effective organizations), employees who are supported to grow and are much more likely to be engaged at work.

Strengthening Culture is a Win-Win

When addressing Millennials’ unique needs, beware of simply creating more programs and policies. It’s essential to shift and strengthen the underlying workplace culture in order to support employee autonomy, personal growth and development, and attract Millennials to your organization.

The good news is that by addressing Millennials’ needs, you will foster a healthier and more productive workplace for all of your employees — and improve organizational performance.

For more on building a thriving workplace culture and improving employee morale, check out this article.

Do you have a healthy workplace culture? Find out now with this quick quiz.

What Every HR and Wellbeing Professional Needs to Consider to Support a Thriving Workplace Culture

Our world is fundamentally different today than it was just a few short years ago. Consequently, the “rules of engagement” are changing for organizations. Workplace culture not only shapes the quality of the entire employee experience, it is also your brand in the marketplace. Now more than ever, here is why it is critical to rethink the importance of culture and how you are creating the conditions for both organizational and employee wellbeing to thrive.

According to the Global Human Capital Trends 2014 report:

  • 83% of organizations are seriously worried about their leadership pipelines.
  • Globally, retention and engagement are the No. 2 issue facing HR professionals, creating a new focus on employee wellbeing and happiness.
  • “The Overwhelmed Employee” is one of the biggest challenges in business due to employees feeling like they are flooded with demands 24×7.1

These concerns did not happen overnight. Chances are there has been subtle feedback along the way indicating organizations should start paying closer attention to both organizational and employee wellbeing. However, once these trends are identified as a concern, too often HR and wellbeing professionals succumb to the temptation to use “quick fix” solutions to try to address them; they end up looking for a technical fix for what is really an adaptive challenge, resulting in less-than-desirable outcomes.

The Parable of the Boiling Frog

Renowned organizational and leadership consultant Peter Senge describes one of the “learning disabilities” organizations have with “the parable of the boiled frog.” If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will instantly scramble and try to escape. If you put it in a pot of room-temperature water it will stay put. Then as you gradually increase water temperature, the frog will adjust until it eventually becomes increasingly groggy, won’t be able to climb out of the pot, and eventually dies. The frog is hard-wired to sense threats to its survival based on sudden changes, not slow, gradual ones.2

In that respect, businesses are like frogs; they don’t pay attention to slow, gradual processes and feedback, and instead wait until they are in hot water. This frequently results in making rash decisions and wasting resources on hopeful “quick fix” solutions — which almost never work and frequently backfire (enter the recent push for outcomes-based wellness incentive programs to address the “sudden emergency” of rising healthcare costs). Organizations need to learn to slow down and pay attention to the subtle feedback as well as the dramatic 2 — and use that feedback to guide a thoughtful approach to improving workplace culture.

Feedback in the Age of Transparency

With the increasing transparency of the state of workplace culture, it’s becoming more difficult for organizations to hide their dysfunction. More than 46% of candidates use some sort of career website such as Glassdoor, CareerBliss, LinkedIn and others to learn more about what it’s really like to work at a potential future employer.3

Robert Hohman, the founder and CEO of Glassdoor, stated in late 2014 that “The knowledge of what it is like to be working for a company cannot be hidden. It will be known.” So those organizations struggling with poor organizational health and culture will also struggle to hire and keep top talent in the increasingly competitive marketplace. 3

So what is your employment brand? Not the image your PR folks have created but your true employment brand that walks home every night and talks to neighbors, friends, and strangers on social media. What do your employees say about your organization? Employee engagement and your employment brand are synonymous, so it’s important to pay attention to how your organization is perceived by potential job candidates, customers, and really all stakeholders.4

What we know from companies like the highly successful Firms of Endearment such as Whole Foods, FedEx,Google, Costco, Starbucks, Panera, Walt Disney, Southwest Airlines, Patagonia, TOMS and New Balance, (to name a few) is that focusing on the long-term (versus scrambling to put out short-term fires) and ensuring all stakeholders (employees included) have their needs met yields great financial success. These widely loved companies outperformed the S&P 500 by more than an 8-to-1 ratio and also outperformed the Good to Greatcompanies by a 3-to-1 ratio over a 10-year period.5 And because of their widely loved culture and employment brand, people are knocking down their doors to try to work there.

Using Feedback to Improve Your Workplace Culture

With the world becoming increasingly transparent, how can you effectively use both the subtle and dramatic feedback to help improve your workplace culture? By first gaining a holistic perspective of the current state of both organizational and employee wellbeing (which can be done by deploying our Thriving Workplace Culture Survey™) and then being transparent about the feedback and including ALL employees in the planning process. Yes, this is not a typo; I do mean “ALL” employees.

What we know from research on Fair Process is that people care about the decisions their organizational leaders make, but employees care even more about the process that was used along the way.

  • They want to know their voice was heard and their feedback was considered, even if the feedback was rejected and not used.
  • Employees will commit to a manager’s decision (even one they disagree with) if they believe the process used to make the decision was fair.
  • Employees are most likely to trust and cooperate freely with systems when Fair Process is observed.
  • Fair Process is not decision by consensus; it gives every idea a chance, but it’s the merit of the ideas (not consensus) that guides the decision making.6

Using this approach profoundly influences attitudes and behaviors and is critical to high performance. It responds to a basic human need to be valued as human beings and not as “human capital,” “personnel,” or “human assets.” Being valued in this way builds trust and commitment — which leads to voluntary cooperation; and voluntary cooperation drives performance where people will go above and beyond the call of duty to share their knowledge and creativity. However, when employees do not feel valued or heard, they tend to not trust the decisions made by leaders. And when employees don’t trust managers, engagement drops.

So, although it may initially seem cumbersome, involving all employees in the planning process for improving organizational and employee wellbeing is critical to addressing the top concerns and challenges business are currently facing. It can’t just be managers sitting in a room creating plans for improving business operations that ignore employee wellbeing; and it can’t be a wellness committee sitting in a room creating plans for employee wellbeing initiatives without considering the business challenges or involving the people whom they are trying to support.

Organizational leadership consultant and guru Margaret Wheatley states that people only support what they’ve helped to create. Therefore, strategic planning needs to evolve and be more about building collective wisdom.

“I want to use the time formerly spent on detailed planning and analysis to create the organizational conditions for people to set a clear intent, to agree on how they are going to work together, and then practice to become better observers, learners and colleagues as they co-create with their environment.” 7 (p. 46)

And chances are that the more you include employees in the process of creating meaningful change within your organization that enhances and improves the employee experience, the more your cultural brand’s reputation will also improve. But how do you do that?

Fusing Organizational and Employee Wellbeing to Guide Culture Transformation

In our book, “How to Create a Thriving Culture at Work, Featuring the 7 Points of Transformation,” we outline in detail how to leverage the collective wisdom of all employees and engage them in the process of building a thriving workplace culture. But to not leave you hanging, the Reader’s Digest version is here for how to leverage the principles of Fair Process and start to gather meaningful feedback to create a shared vision for your organization. Here are some questions to ask everyone, to provide valuable insight and guide your culture journey:

  • Fast-forward to five years from now. If our organization has a thriving culture — where people love coming to work, feel valued and supported in all areas of wellbeing, and the organization is strong and growing, how might life look differently on a daily basis?
  • What will tell us that we have created a culture where both organizational and employee wellbeing thrive?
  • What behaviors will we see that are consistent with our company values?
  • What behaviors will we see that are consistent with our desired culture?
  • What behaviors might we see that will hurt our desired culture?
  • What practices do we need to keep doing to allow people to be their best?
  • What practices do we need to stop doing to allow people to be their best?
  • How do we want to hold one another accountable for intentionally fostering our desired culture?
  • How will we know we’re moving in the right direction?

By including ALL employees in the process of creating the conditions for both organizational and employee wellbeing to thrive, you will be able to more effectively improve and maintain your cultural brand and reap the benefits as a high-performing organization.


  1. Global Human Capital Trends 2014: Engaging the 21st-Century Workforce, Deloitte Consulting LLP and Bersin By Deloitte, Deloitte University Press, April 2014.
  1. Peter M. Senge (2006). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.
  1. “The Future of Business: Human Resources. How HR Leaders are Reinventing Their Roles and Transforming Business.” Report from The Economist Intelligence Unit (2014).
  1. Josh Bersin (January 2015). Predictions for 2015: Redesigning the Organization for a Rapidly Changing World. Bersin by Deloitte/Deloitte Consulting.
  1. Sisodia, R., Wolfe,D. & Sheth, J. (2014). Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies PROFIT from Passion and Purpose. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
  1. Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne (Jan. 2003). Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy, Harvard Business Review.
  1. Margaret J. Wheatley (1999). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.