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February 15, 2012 | Volume 6 | Number 2
February 15, 2012
Many successful and high-functioning organizations are committed to developing healthy workplaces and demonstrate the positive outcomes these initiatives have on employees and the organization. At the same time, there are organizations that strive to create a healthy workplace and fall short. Many of these organizations are led by very enthusiastic and effective leaders, but they seem to have missed something along the way.
How do these well-meaning leaders inadvertently create unhealthy workplaces? Why do some self-acclaimed “healthy” workplaces go astray? There are several pitfalls that can occur when trying to create and sustain psychologically healthy workplaces.
Allowing enthusiasm to go awry
One key aspect of transformational leadership is “inspirational motivation” (Bass, 1990; Bass & Riggio, 2006), which involves motivating people by displaying enthusiasm, “providing meaning and challenge to their followers’ work,” arousing individual and team spirit and “envision[ing] attractive future states” (Bass et al., 2003, p. 208). That is, enthusiasm is key to effective transformational leadership. Moreover, when we are passionate about our work, this enthusiasm can be contagious. However, ironically, we sometimes compromise employees’ autonomy and health while on the journey to a healthy workplace. In our enthusiasm to do our jobs, there is always the tendency to push too much, ignoring the perspectives of others. Sometimes we need to step back and look at the situation from the viewpoint of employees and colleagues, in order to put our actions and motivations into perspective. Enthusiasm isn’t bad… we just need to use it wisely to help engage and motivate others to create a healthy work environment, without overwhelming them.
Having a “we are already healthy” attitude
Organizational leaders who believe they have attained the status of a healthy workplace and stop thinking about it really don’t have a healthy workplace at all. We need to view workplace health in the same manner that we view personal health: We can’t stop exercising and start eating junk food once we’ve attained “health.” Like personal health, organizational health is an on-going process. Not only do leaders who take on this attitude risk being complacent, but they have missed a central tenet in the healthy workplace literature – a healthy workplace is as much an attitude and process as it is an outcome.
Forcing healthy practices on employees
Many leaders focus their healthy workplace initiatives around encouraging and maintaining health and fitness goals. This focus is important within the larger psychologically healthy workplace, but what about when “encouraging” becomes “enforcing”? At one organization, employees confided that their health-conscious boss would police employees’ lunches and throw out any junk food brought to work. How healthy is a workplace that has such a dictator-like (albeit well-meaning) boss?
These types of well-intentioned leaders can actually decrease employee health and well-being by undermining motivation. Enforcing health reduces employees’ autonomy and control, and consequently reduces compliance, well-being and engagement. This enforcement attitude is seen in other well-intentioned policies and initiatives, such as requiring employees to volunteer, banning employees from working over their lunch breaks and not allowing employees to send emails on weekends. Although these initiatives are implemented with the intention of helping employees, they can take away employees’ control over their work. Employees who lack control tend to be less engaged and experience more stress (Demerouti et al., 2001).
Having a “more is always better” outlook
Employees at a small not-for-profit organization prided themselves on having a high level of participation in organizational activities and involvement in organizational decisions. However, they wanted to be “better” by striving for unanimous participation and involvement in all decisions. The result was high involvement, but slow decision-making ability, and employees wasted a lot of time in meetings and decision-making activities. Although employee involvement and consensus are an integral part of any healthy organization, leaders who feel it is absolutely necessary to have unanimous agreement on every organizational decision might be misguided. This democratic process may be detrimental such that it reduces effectiveness and employee well-being. It also can waste employees’ time and bog down the decision-making process. At some point, more of a healthy practice is not more effective, and it may even create inefficiencies and problems.
Creating surface-level civility instead of genuine collegial respect
Much work has demonstrated the negative impact of incivility both on employees and organizations (e.g., Andersson & Pearson, 1999; Bies & Tripp, 2005; Cortina et al., 2001) and interventions have been developed to improve civility in the workplace (e.g., Leiter, Laschinger, Day, & Gilin Oore, 2011). Civility is a key condition for a healthy workplace; however, it isn’t sufficient. That is, a key aspect of the civility intervention research emphasizes the need for real respect and trust among colleagues beyond simple Victorian-era politeness, which may or may not translate into genuine caring for one’s colleagues. Enforcing politeness, without generating the underlying respect, may exacerbate negative collegial relationships.
What can you do to avoid falling into one of these traps? Here are a few tips for leaders:
Enthusiasm is great, but…
Not only is enthusiasm “okay” – many leadership interventions focus on how to increase it to create an environment of inspirational motivation. Use this enthusiasm to positively motivate and engage others, but never lose sight of your overall goals, and ensure you take your employees’ and colleagues’ perspectives into consideration. Talk to them, and more importantly, listen to them. It is counterproductive to allow overly enthusiastic behaviours to jeopardize the trust and respect that you as a leader have worked so hard to earn.
The healthy workplace as a journey
Because of the necessary focus on the attitude and process of developing healthy workplaces, attitude and resultant behaviors are reflected in the culture of the organization, not only in terms of the visible aspects of the organization (i.e., artifacts), but also in the underlying values and basic assumptions of the organization (see Schein, 1990). The process is important in defining the healthiness of the organization. An active concern for employees is translated into daily activities. Without the basic assumptions that employees are valuable, and healthy employees are critical to success, and without the values of respect and trust, sustainability of healthy workplace initiatives is questionable. What can you do? Ensure the values of a healthy workplace are integral to your organization and are reflected in your vision and mission statement.
Support instead of enforce
Another key aspect of effective leadership is individual consideration, which involves paying “attention to each individual’s need for achievement and growth by acting as a coach or mentor,” developing followers to higher levels of potential, creating new learning opportunities “along with a supportive climate in which to grow” and recognizing “individual differences in terms of needs and desires” (Bass et al., 2003, p. 208). That is, our role (whether pertaining to job-focused tasks or other health initiatives) is to provide options and support employee choices, instead of forcing and enforcing options. Leaders also can practice what they preach and model the behaviors as a type of idealized influence aspect of leadership (Bass et al., 2003).
We need to provide initiatives, respect our colleagues and support them. This respect and support drives health, engagement and productivity. Involving employees and engaging in joint goal setting are effective methods of behavior change and developing healthy workplaces. Healthy workplaces and healthy employees are possible only if employees are empowered to make changes, and if they are provided the resources, and most importantly, the support to change. Research consistently shows that having control over your job and having a say in decisions is linked to better health outcomes (Day & Jreige, 2002) and may improve performance (e.g., Bond & Bunce, 2003; Bond & Flaxman, 2006).
Focus on employee and organizational outcomes
Although employee involvement is a good thing, can an organization have too much of a good thing? Surprisingly, although we think that group decision making is always the best, research indicates that decisions made by teams can be less effective than individual decisions (both in terms of being less expedient and having lower-quality decisions; e.g., Allen & Hecht, 2003). This type of “more is better” attitude can be taken to an extreme in other workplace health initiatives as well if the overall goal of a healthy workplace is ignored, and if balance isn’t achieved. According to APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace model, a healthy workplace is defined not only in terms of high employee well-being, but also in terms of effective organizational functioning. Assessing the impact of healthy workplace practices is essential, and any practice that violates this second requirement needs to be re-evaluated.
Create genuine collegial respect
How can you tell real civility from a more surface-level politeness that lacks genuine collegial respect and trust? At a glance, the two may be indistinguishable. However, the differences are painfully clear, especially over time. Employee relationships within organizations with a surface-level civility tend to break down over time: Face-to-face relationships may still be civil, but other uncivil behaviors will tend to emerge (e.g., excluding colleagues, talking behind their backs). Genuine respect can be hard to monitor and enforce, so civility is a good starting point. However, developing trust with employees, allowing them say in decisions, and having the freedom to be heard (and sometimes to be wrong) is integral. Modelling respect for your colleagues and employees, communicating respect as an organizational priority and providing sanctions for disrespectful behaviour are integral steps in developing and sustaining civility and genuine collegial respect.
So…work with all of your ideas, enthusiasm, experience and good intentions to create healthy workplace initiatives. Encourage and support your expert employees and colleagues to help you in this journey. Trust them, and provide the type of environment in which they feel safe to express new ideas and develop initiatives that help promote an efficient, productive and healthy workplace.
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Schein, E. (1990). Organizational culture. American Psychologist, 45(2), 109-119.
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