doing well by doing good

November 15, 2017

Mark looked down as he walked through the front doors of his office building and noticed he was wearing two different shoes. In an exhausted haze this morning, he had grabbed one brown loafer and one black. Instantly, Mark felt his stress levels rise.

This story came up at coffee with a friend as we were discussing how tired we had been lately due to our various mid-life circumstances. Mark was struggling with managing his unwell mother. With teenagers at home, he had been up late all week helping his daughter finish a project that could significantly influence her chances of getting into university.

Mark’s late-night homework sessions were the catalyst for the black/brown shoe mishap, falling asleep at his desk, and missing his morning meeting with his boss. The story does not end there. That meeting was intended to give Mark key information so he could nail the pitch that afternoon; instead he was totally unprepared and he lost the business—all $150,000 of it.

And we still use phrases like work-life balance?

Mark’s story is particularly resonant because this could be anyone’s day. It is why the concept of balancing work and life is untenable. It is also why organizations that care about their people, both inside and outside the walls of their office buildings, are the most successful.

If Mark’s boss knew the backstory, he may have given him the additional time he needed to prepare or postponed the pitch altogether. The healthiest organizations—
the ones that care the most about their employees’
well-being—maintain a rich talent base, promote innovation and knowledge sharing, and give their people the tools to ensure optimal performance.

But what defines a healthy organization and how does that translate into high-performing cultures and profitability?

First, let us define a healthy workplace.

According to Dr David Whiteside, organizational behavior researcher and scientist, “Well-being is defined as both engagement and performance. It is not only about building the employees’ ‘desire to be engaged and high-performing, it is also about building the employees’ ‘capacity to be engaged and high-performing—something that is just as, if not more, important.”

Companies that have this special combination of capacity and passion are often rewarded with high growth, increased revenue, less attrition, and healthier, happier employees. Then, for most leaders, it just becomes an effort to figure out what makes up the secret sauce to bottle it and scale.

 project Aristotle

One such example is Google. In 2012, they initiated a research assignment named Project Aristotle. This study assessed 180 of the company’s most successful teams to determine the key ingredients of their high-performing behaviors.

Google would learn that the most effective and innovative teams had two fundamental traits in common; conversational turn taking and high social sensitivity. Essentially, after years of gathering data, they would discover what we all know intuitively; high levels of psychological safety amongst individuals in teams (AKA being nice!) would lead their company to greatness.

For Google, this was a game-changer, one that encouraged increased investment in programming geared to building kindness, happiness, emotional control, well-being and mindfulness. They even hire and form teams differently, and as a result, their employee satisfaction has risen 37% (Oswald, 2014).

why so wary of well-being?

It all makes perfect sense, yet, how many CEOs engage in happiness strategies? Why do so few senior leaders build budgets to support psychological safety in the workplace?

Could it be that CEOs believe that ‘being nice’ sounds just a little too simple to be true? Humans tend to believe that the more complex the solution, the more rigor we put into the invention, and therefore, will have a higher likelihood of working.

The truth is longer commutes, influx of technology, less downtime, and increased fear of obsolescence (to name a few) are serious issues that negatively impact the health and wellness of employees globally. Combine these new challenges with the weighted baggage and bias of what work symbolized in the past (i.e. a means to an end), and you have a pretty steep hill for CEOs to climb.

The moral of the story: Building healthy, happy,
high-performing cultures is hard. And the science behind how to build them is nothing close to fluffy.

If you do not believe me, here are the stats.

how a well-being strategy is a revenue strategy?

A ten-year study by Harvard professor John Kotter compared public companies with a strong focus on corporate culture to companies without it. He learned that companies that cared about healthy cultures and happier employees, “increased their revenue by 682 percent, compared to just 166 percent for non-culture focused firms.”

  • Their stock price increased by 901%, versus 74%.
  • They saw a huge gain in net income: 756%, versus 1%.
  • Their job growth increased 282%, versus 36%.

CEOs need to invest in employee well-being as a priority. Ensuring that employees are healthy, happy, and engaged means creating a strong company culture and keeping employees intrinsically motivated. Particularly, if they want to retain their high performers, who on average, make 35% more profit for the company than low performers, and 27% more than core performers (Straz, 2014).2

As do most employees, high performers believe their compensation should be fair. However, if you are defining a compensation strategy, studies show that flexible work time, acknowledgement by higher-ups, and professional development should also be a high priority.

well-being and community—how they collide

A collaborative work environment is also critical to building a healthy corporate culture. One study, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more’’ over the last two decades and that, at many companies, more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.

How does this benefit organizational health? In simplified terms—a ton.

According to psychologist and researcher, Dr Lieberman, those at work whom we see daily have the potential to increase our happiness as much as earning $100,000 more per year. He writes in his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, about how our performance in life and at work is tied to the success of our relationships. Positive relationships boost our performance while negative personal experiences can have a dramatic, negative effect. Lieberman writes, “When you break a critical social tie—here, in the case of getting divorced—it’s like suffering a $90,000 per year decrease in your income.”

the annual engagement survey will not measure well-being

In our research at Plasticity Labs, we have learned that measuring outcomes and analyzing ‘looking-back’ data
is entirely unhelpful when it comes to predicting attrition, disengagement, unhappiness, stress, and most problems affecting your employees. We believe that the annual engagement survey is one of the worst tools to measure engagement.

What we discovered was the necessity for more upstream and frequent analysis of employee sentiment, studied over time through periods of healthiness, stress, and change.

To further illustrate, the upstream/downstream distinction is well explained by medical sociologist
John McKinlay, in his allegory of the physician who continues to rescue people from drowning in a fast-moving current. Each time the physician pulls someone out of the river and saves them, another person floats by in need of his help. As he is busy saving their lives, he continues to miss the opportunity to run upstream and stop them from falling in.

When we measure an outcome rather than an input, we rarely get the whole picture. Companies that only request feedback from their employees once every year (or less)
are just as effective as the physician yanking bodies out of the river.

well-being matters to millennials most

When you look at the workforce composite of high-growth industries, 70% of those employees are millennials. And they have a different concept of work and life compared to previous generations. Flexibility for example, has been proven to increase an employees’ productivity. It is why we are seeing the rise of flex time or remote work options. A recent survey found that 51% of working adults plan to look for a new job that offers more flexibility within the next three years. As millennials get older and begin starting families, this need (and expectation) for flexibility will only rise (Mom Corps, 2014).

Workplace well-being will be the next revolution to disrupt our workforce. We are seeing the first signs of a tipping point now as more large enterprise companies signal they want to ‘do well by doing good’.

For leaders, it may just mean baby steps, starting with learning more about our employees’ lives outside the workplace and ensuring collaboration occurs so relationships can be built inside the workplace.