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Which Hammer Will You Beat Employees With?


“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” --- Abraham Maslow (1966)

This expression seems to be quite apropos to what has taken place in a lot – and I mean a lot – of modern organizations. Wellness programs have become the one-stop-shop for fixing all of your employees’ ills, with companies spending a record $693 per worker. Yet, many companies have found that they have put all their eggs into one not-so-beneficial basket, so companies began “incentivizing” participation, which is often met with mixed results.

But if incentives don’t work well for you, you might try another hammer that employees seem to be getting beaten with: gamification. If we gamify everything, from wellness programs to training to sales, employees will become more focused and engaged in their work, choosing to spend more effort and energy on these initiatives.

And if that doesn’t suit your fancy, one of the newest hammers is mindfulness, a favorite of companies like Aetna and Google. While there’s nothing wrong with the practice of meditation and mindfulness, companies are starting to treat it as a panacea for stress reduction, and in some cases, is creating a “cult of mindfulness.”

Yet, these three popular hammers all have two things in common in how they are implemented:

  1. They assume there is one best way to accomplish a desired goal.
  2. They put the onus squarely on the employee and remove any responsibility for employee ills on the work environment itself.

Instead, these solutions are often touted within organizations in which employees regularly work long hours and encounter a myriad of stressors that exist within the work environment. Hence, the goal seems to be to find ways to make people healthier, more motivated or more relaxed so they can navigate better the stressors that exist within the work environment, without having to put forth the effort to address issues that exist within the work environment.

Many organizations fail to take a systemic organizational development approach to assessing and truly solving underlying problems. When an annual employee survey suggests employees are stressed, the organization offers a mindfulness program or a stress management program and hopes it will address the problem. Yet, issues like stress, health and well-being are multifaceted and require multifaceted solutions. 

When companies rely on initiatives like wellness programs or mindfulness to solve multifaceted problems, they are committing what is called the fundamental attribution error, in which they tend to assume the problem lies with an employee rather than looking at the environment and situational demands that produce the undesired outcomes. While it is true that employee health and well-being is influenced by characteristics of the person (e.g., their personality, competencies, resources and behaviors), the situation (i.e., work environment) has a profound impact as well. A failure to address one without addressing the other will, at best, result in decreased effectiveness for what we are trying to accomplish.

Instead, what we typically see is a new hammer that becomes popular, sometimes taking hold, sometimes becoming nothing but a fad – just like we see when it comes to the latest and greatest diet. Regardless of established effectiveness or return on investment, companies tend to adopt the approach until something new comes along and take hold, even if only for a short time.

And for employees, well, I’m reminded of the attempt at ironic humor found on t-shirts, hats and other trinkets: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

http://www.flickr.com/photos/zemistor / CC BY-ND 2.0

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. Matt Grawitch published on September 8, 2015 11:39 AM.

How Egalitarian Relationships Help Us All Thrive at Work was the previous entry in this blog.

Stopping the Contagion of Telecommuting Misinformation is the next entry in this blog.

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