A few years ago one of our client companies merged with their biggest competitor and they asked us to facilitate some preliminary meetings with the other management group which, until the merger, had been their rivals. There was much anxiety in both management groups about how to merge the two very different, adversarial and extremely competitive cultures.
Andrew, a senior Human Resources consultant and my colleague for this assignment, and I spent many hours planning an agenda for the first meeting. We orchestrated every detail. I thought.
The morning arrived for the first meeting and Andrew was going to lead off with a welcome and outline for the day. When Andrew walked to the front of the hotel conference room you could see the tension in the room expressed in the silence and body language and faces of the participants.
Andrew began by introducing himself. He then completely surprised me, and everyone else in the room, by taking a few minutes to point out where the emergency exits were in the room and ask everyone to look around and identify the exit closest to them. I was not only surprised but I thought it was ill advised and “off message” to begin the day in this way. The participants were looking even more tense and uncomfortable.
Andrew then went on to explain that he spent many years working for a large chemical manufacturer and it was standard practice there to begin every meeting by pointing out the emergency exits. Manufacturing highly explosive chemicals can be a very dangerous business. The company culture was built on the belief that it was every employee’s responsibility to be vigilant about safety. Pointing out safety exits at every meeting was one tactic for regularly reinforcing this message and creating a safety-oriented company culture.
It turned that Andrew’s introduction cut right to the heart of what brought us together in that conference room. What would be the culture of the newly merged company? What values and ideas were powerful enough to bring the new leadership group together and overcome the differences, and suspicion, in the two companies? How would new culture be communicated effectively so that every employee understood it and owned it?
Wouldn’t the tactics used to maintain a high level of awareness about safety transfer well to companies seeking to increase awareness about the relationship between individual employee health and organizational productivity and profitability?
What would be the impact if an organization told managers to begin every meeting with a fact or an anecdote that makes an explicit connection between individual employee health and organizational wellbeing?
“According to the World Economic Forum, when health and well-being are actively promoted, companies are:
-3.5 times more likely to encourage creativity and innovation
-3 times more productive
-4 times less likely to lose talent within one year
-8 times more likely to have engaged employees
-2.5 times more likely to be a best performer”
“According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the five factors that drive primary health care costs are:
-Alcohol & substance abuse”
It’s like Andrew taking a moment to share what he learned about where the safety exits are located. It only takes a few seconds of the group’s time (and some preparation on the part of the person chairing the meeting) but it communicates a salient message about what the organization values. Cumulatively, every meeting that begins in this way reinforces the importance of employee health to organizational health.
If the goal is to get everyone in the organization thinking about how to improve employee health, organizations cannot rely exclusively on wellness programs that are designed and communicated on a company-wide scale. Individual health is a most personal matter and is the cumulative result of many small individual choices.
Changing a company culture requires a vision and it requires persistent and conscious behavioral changes by all the participants in that culture. Let’s explore some new tactics for “walking the talk” about employee wellness.