3 Easy Ways to Find Out If Your Organization is 400 Years Behind the Times, and How to Fast Forward to Today

As crazy as it sounds, your organization might still be stuck applying approaches  to organizational and employee wellbeing based on 17th century science. If so, your efforts to improve morale and workplace productivity may be as fruitless as trying to convince your boss that the world is flat.

How Organizations Are Stuck

The best way to describe the worldview of the 17th century is “mechanistic.” This paradigm was based on a conceptualization of the universe and all its components, including living things, as machines, which could only be understood by reducing them to their smallest constituent parts.

Consider 17th-century science as applied to various disciplines:

  • Medicine: “fixing” specific parts of the body was necessary to fix the machine (the entire person).
  • Physical science: controlling the natural world was the ultimate goal.
  • Social sciences: modifying behavior was best done by using “carrots” and “sticks” to get people to change.
  • Organizational development: improving the efficiency of employees could only be done by the same method used to improve the efficiency of machines; break down every action, job, or task into their simplest component parts which could then be easily analyzed, taught and monitored.

While this conceptualization of the universe worked well in the 17th century — some of it even through to the 20th century — it is now more than 400 years out of date!

For more than a century, new and often startling scientific discoveries from quantum physics, psychoneuroimmunology, chaos theory, and neuroscience have dramatically altered our knowledge of the workings of that universe, as well as our understanding of human health and illness and the process of change. These scientific discoveries inform what we call the new paradigm for supporting organizational and employee wellbeing, recognizing and incorporating the inherent complexities of living systems.

Much like the weather, people and organizations are complex systems that do not lend themselves to prediction and control. Unfortunately, many of these important scientific findings have not trickled down to health and business professionals, contributing to a stuckness that significantly limits the effectiveness of our approaches for helping organizations and the people who work within them to thrive.

Clues Your Organization May be Stuck in the 17th Century

It’s critical to address organizational health and employee wellbeing with an evidence-based as opposed to a belief-based approach. Here’s the difference:

  • In an evidence-based approach, an idea becomes a theory or best practice after it has been tested and supported by science.
  • In a belief-based approach, an idea is accepted without question and contradicting evidence is consistently ignored.

How to tell if you are stuck in a belief-based approach to workplace wellbeing:

1. You seek to motivate your employees so they will be more productive. You may think you are engaging employees to participate in programs or change their behavior, but if you are forcing participation by offering rewards or punishments, you are actually using an outdated model that just doesn’t work and has significant unintended consequences.

If you are asking questions like, How do I get my employees to change? or What drives employee behavior?, you might want to think about whether you are actually treating them as if they were rodents or cattle, rather than inherently unique and complex human beings capable of thinking and doing for themselves.

2. Your “healthy culture” at work is overwhelmingly focused on traditional, biomedical health risks and behavior. You believe you have a healthy workplace because you offer corporate wellness programs and provide an environment that supports healthy lifestyle behaviors. However, if your results are based primarily on participation in health risk-reduction activities or certain prescribed behaviors (e.g., weight loss), you’re still stuck in a belief-based biomedical model and not addressing what culture really is. You are also stuck if you claim ROIs and cost savings from employee-wellness initiatives based on faulty research designs that give highly improbable or mathematically impossible results.

3. Your organization operates with a top-down corporate model. Though you may have employee recognition programs or claim to value input from everyone, you are stuck in an outdated paradigm if you still conduct business in a top-down, authoritarian fashion, treating employees like cogs in a wheel. If you believe you can transform your workplace culture by focusing only on climate, and without fundamentally shifting how you develop leaders, or you claim your organization truly values employees and still refer to them as “human capital” or “human resources,” it’s time for some updating.

  • How to apply a 21st century approach: Instead, create the conditions for your employees to have autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Moving away from a control-oriented approach may seem counterintuitive, yet we all know that human beings don’t like to be told what to do. These critical factors will help foster intrinsic motivation, engagement, and help employees better face adaptive challenges at the workplace:
    • Autonomy: The ability for employees to think and do for themselves.
    • Mastery: The ability for employees to take advantage of opportunities to learn and grow, and become highly skilled.
    • Purpose: The ability for employees to feel their work is meaningful and understand their connection to a greater purpose and vision.

When employees experience autonomy, mastery, and purpose, the inevitable result will be success — including financial success — for your organization and all its stakeholders. And the new sciences tell us that you cannot reward, coerce, pressure or punish employees into that success; it simply has to happen from the inside out.

Despite your best intentions, your efforts to improve organizational and employee wellbeing will not deliver the results you desire if you are still stuck in the 17th century. Instead update your approach to organizational and employee wellbeing using evidence-based approaches that will free, fuel, and inspire your employees to bring their best selves to work each day.

If you think you may be applying outdated approaches at your organization, take our FREE Manager’s Audit for a snapshot of the health of your workplace — and receive suggestions for improvements! Or download a FREE chapter of our ground-breaking book, “How to Build a Thriving Culture at Work, Featuring the 7 Points of Transformation.”


Jon Robison, PhD, MS, MAJon is an accomplished speaker, teacher, writer and consultant. He has spent his career advocating that health promotion shift away from its traditional, biomedical, control-oriented focus, with a particular interest in why people do what they do and don’t do what they don’t do. Jon has authored numerous articles and book chapters and is a frequent presenter at national and international conferences. He is also co-author of the book, “The Spirit & Science of Holistic Health — More than Broccoli, Jogging and Bottled Water, More than Yoga, Herbs and Meditation.” This work formed the foundation for one of the first truly holistic employee wellness programs — Kailo. Kailo won awards in both Canada and The United States, and the creators lovingly claim Jon as its father. Contact Jon at: jon@salveopartners.com or jonrobison.net.

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