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.