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.
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