By Audrey McGibbon, Co-Author, GLWS

“Is wellbeing a fad?”

We were asked this question recently and our instinctive response was “We hope not!”. Not given how much positive change we have seen come about through the recent focus on wellbeing. But, thinking more about it, it’s a fair question. Wellbeing/wellness programs and initiatives have popped up like mushrooms all over workplaces – and in some quarters, this could feel a little like ‘jumping on the bandwagon’. But our true response is a firm no – that like many other ‘themes’ of recent times (diversity, psychological safety, even engagement), wellbeing is an essential ingredient in creating a workplace culture where people do their best work, are creative and innovative, collaborate effectively and perform sustainably at a high level to meet organisational objectives.

There probably are people within organisations addressing wellbeing as a fad, perhaps implementing a few ‘lunch ‘n’ learns’, supporting a ‘get fit’ campaign and encouraging healthy eating at work. Nothing wrong with any of that, but they are unlikely to achieve lasting change in behaviour. Or, for that matter, any of the desirable outcomes from seeing a real uplift in wellbeing – such as reduced absenteeism, increased engagement, innovation and retention, and sustainable high productivity and performance. (If you are yet to be convinced that these are the outcomes that investment in wellbeing can bring, then please ask and we can guide you to the evidence). That’s because these programs, by and large, are not very ‘sticky’ – and, without fundamental shifts in how the leadership of the organisation engages with wellbeing, are doomed to under-achieve, if not fail.

For wellbeing to stick, and for organisations to see the benefits, it needs to be embedded in the expectations and behaviour of all leaders.

Wellbeing as a core leadership capability

We all know that initiatives in organisations have to be supported from the top to stand a chance of getting off the ground, surviving and achieving their objectives. With wellbeing, we would like to see this go one stage further – indeed, we believe this is fundamental to realising the cultural shifts required to truly embed wellbeing.

It’s time to view wellbeing as an essential leadership capability.

Organisations expect leaders to have well-developed skills in people leadership, emotional intelligence, stakeholder relationships, strategic thinking, problem-solving and so on. In this day and age, shouldn’t we also expect leaders to be capable of developing wellbeing?

And by developing wellbeing, we mean:

  1. Attending to their own self-care,
  2. Attending and promoting ‘other-care’ for the people they lead,
  3. And being champions of wellbeing across their organisations.

Here is our attempt at a fuller definition of ‘enabling wellbeing’, and we offer this up as a gift to stimulate your minds on what might work in your own organisation: “Making purposeful and well-informed choices to optimise wellbeing for self and others, role-modelling wellbeing as a priority, embedding reliable disciplines and influencing positive change in the system for others.”

How your organisation can enable Wellbeing

To make wellbeing an essential skill, it needs to be documented within your organisation’s frameworks and integrated into performance reviews.

We propose you:

  1. Update your organisation’s leadership capability framework to include wellbeing as a
    clear and explicit expectation.
  2. Redesign or augment your leadership development initiatives to include leaders’ development of this capability as a core component of every leadership development program, at all levels of leadership.
  3. Build engagement in your wellbeing strategy to a point where you can set wellbeing KPIs as part of every leader’s performance targets.
  4. And finally, evaluate performance and reward leaders for their success in enabling wellbeing. After all, what gets measured, gets done. The world is changing. Leaders are under more pressure to perform and respond to rapid organisational, social and technological change than ever before. The best of the best will understand, model and uphold positive wellbeing practices in the workplace.

Leaders who role-model and prioritise the wellbeing skills and behaviours taught to them will become an organisation’s most powerful enablers of improved employee wellbeing and all the possible benefits that come with it. But it’s only strong leadership, behavioural and cultural change driven by wellbeing data that will deliver.

Speak to a PeopleScape consultant about your Wellbeing strategy today 

During a weekly team meeting at Company Zed, LaTonya, an employee who has worked for the company for nine months, questioned one of the company’s normal operating processes.  She offered an idea that she believed would meet the same goal while saving the company time and money.  After discussing and researching the idea, Company Zed was able to implement the new process, which resulted in a savings of both time and money.  Meanwhile, at Company Alpha’s team meeting, a long-term employee had a similar time-and-money-saving idea but refrained from bringing her idea up for discussion. As a result, Alpha continued to engage in their normal process.

What differentiates these companies and results in Zed’s high level of teamwork and ability to solve complex problems? The employee at Company Alpha appears concerned with impression management.  It is likely that her past experiences or the company’s culture has taught this employee that she is safer to withhold her thoughts, questions, or concerns.  In doing so, Alpha does not learn as a team, improve the organization, or engage in innovation.

The employee at Zed appears to feel safe voicing her idea, even though it calls for the company to make a change to operations.  Given the employee’s willingness to voice her opinion, Company Zed appears to have a higher level of psychological safety than Alpha.  Psychological safety is the belief that an individual will not be humiliated or punished for being curious, offering an idea, questioning the status quo, or admitting to a mistake.

To be competitive and successful in business today, teams must be able to develop cooperative relationships and solve complex problems. Research indicates that teams with high levels of psychological safety are more likely to be open-minded, creative, curious, confident, social, humorous, persistent, and to feel more comfortable speaking frankly about ideas, concerns, questions, and mistakes.  Teams high in psychological safety report that their work environment feels challenging but not threatening, which allows members to feel comfortable expressing vulnerability in front of a group of peers.  The ability to engage in vulnerability-inducing behaviour encourages moderate levels of risk-taking and strategic development of solutions to complex problems.

Teams high on psychological safety also exhibit differences in their brain chemistry.  Specifically, teams with high levels of psychological safety have increased levels of Oxytocin, which has been called the “love hormone.”  Oxytocin levels affect how we bond with and trust others.  In team environments, increased levels of Oxytocin lead to more trust, openness, and the ability to manage conflict, which results in improved team performance.

Creating a Safe Culture

  1. How do we create or increase psychological safety on our teams?  According to research, we can engage in the following behaviours:
    Provide your team with a rationale for engaging in risk-taking and vulnerability-inducing behaviour.  One of the surest means to provide this rationale is to acknowledge that everyone’s ideas and instincts will be needed to solve a complex problem.
  2. Model a culture where it is acceptable to make mistakes or be wrong. A leader can accomplish this by admitting to his or her own mistakes, asking team members to catch the leader’s mistakes, and modelling the importance of continued learning in order to improve his or her own skills.
  3. Encourage collaboration, not competition. This can be done by asking team members to solve conflicts in a mutually agreeable manner, rather than by engaging in competition, criticism, or other behaviours that may trigger a fight-or-flight reaction. Collaboration works best if team members:
  4. Treat one another as equal in competence, social status, and autonomy.  Team equalization changes the way teams engage in confrontation and elicits trust and other positive behaviours.
  5. Decrease defensiveness and increase curiosity.  Engaging in the “blame game” tends to increase conflict, defensiveness, and disengagement.  Leaders can increase curiosity by modelling the appropriateness of asking questions and engaging in conversations in an attempt to understand another’s point of view.

Increasing your company’s level of psychological safety may provide the competitive advantage that will continue to differentiate your company from your competitors.  Please let us know if you need assistance with implementing strategies to increase psychological safety.

Discuss how to move your team to a psychologically safe culture by contacting a PeopleScape Consultant today – Contact Us