Forget a “Culture of Health” – Focus on a Thriving Workplace Culture

“Culture” has become another popular buzz word for addressing employee health, safety and engagement. However, most organizations are not addressing culture; they are addressing climate and environment – and they’re going about it in a way that doesn’t make sense.

In the business and Organizational Development (OD) world, Edgar Schein, PhD is the guru and leading researcher on corporate culture. He describes culture as “the hidden force that drives most of our behavior both inside and outside organizations.”

  • It goes beyond “it’s the way we do things around here,” the company climate, basic values, etc. These are all manifestations of the culture.
  • It’s like looking at a river; everything you see on the surface from the flow of the water to the shape of the river bed is a manifestation of an ever-changing, powerful current beneath the surface. In terms of culture, the current that ultimately drives the strength and direction includes the unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings.
  • The interaction between leaders and culture is profound and critical when trying to transform or evolve the overall culture and subcultures within an organization.

In the traditional world of employee or worksite wellness, a “culture of health” or a “healthy culture” primarily refers to climate and refers to policies, procedures, communication practices, programs, rewards and leadership behaviors that support so-called healthy lifestyle choices and healthy behaviors. It is highly possible for an organization to have a “culture of health/wellness” but still be completely dysfunctional in terms of organizational wellbeing. Unfortunately for many workplaces, this is the consistent, unpleasant reality.  

The Power of Culture

Nothing illustrates the power of culture more than this well-known scientific experiment. A group of scientists placed five monkeys in a cage; and in the middle of the cage, a ladder with bananas on top. Every time a monkey went up the ladder, the scientists soaked all of the monkeys with ice water from a fire hose. This continued until eventually no monkey dared to go up the ladder – regardless of the temptation.

Then, the scientists decided to substitute one of the monkeys with one that had never been in the cage. The first thing the new monkey did was to go up the ladder to get the banana. Immediately, the other monkeys beat up the new monkey. After several beatings, the new member learned not to climb the ladder even though it never knew why. A second monkey was then substituted, and the same thing occurred. This time, the first replacement monkey participated in the beating for the new monkey. Eventually all the monkeys were replaced; each time the other monkeys participated in beating when the new monkey tried to climb the ladder and get the banana.

Eventually, what was left was a group of five monkeys that were never blasted by the ice cold water yet refused to even attempt to climb the ladder to get a banana. If it was possible to ask the monkeys why they beat up anyone who attempted to go up the ladder, I bet you the answer would be…

“I don’t know; that’s just how things are done around here.”

Does this sound familiar? How often do we do things that make absolutely no sense, but it’s just the way things are done? This is the power of paradigms and the power of culture.

  • The culture of an organization plays a significant role in shaping employee behavior and fostering organizational change.
  • Culture is learned over time and simultaneously involves behavior, emotional and cognitive processes.
  • The cognitive or thought processes ultimately shape the attitudes, feelings, overt behavior and values of employees.1 Unless these underlying assumptions are addressed, successful change will not be possible because organizations will eventually revert to how they originally operated.2
  • Culture provides the foundation and support for organizational well-being.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast, operational excellence for lunch, and everything else for dinner!” – Peter Drucker

Building a Thriving Workplace Culture

Transforming company culture should not merely be seen as some “other” thing to do; it should incorporate everything an organization does as a business – including how problems are solved and how people work together; and it starts with leadership.3 Although it is possible for organizations to change, sustainable results will not occur unless the culture and people are fully prepared and aligned to support change.4 In other words, organizations need to work to foster high levels of organizational well-being and employee engagement to shift their culture and have sustainable change.

Schein, E. H. (1990). Organizational culture. American Psychologist, 45(2), 109-119.
Schein, E. H. (1985). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Morgan, C. D. (1998). Culture change/culture shock. Management Review, 87(10), 13.
Juechter, W. M., Fisher, C., & Alford, R. J. (1998). Five conditions for high-performance cultures. Training & Development, 52(5), 63-67.

Rosie Ward, PhD, MPH, MCHES, BCC, CIC®, CVS-FR Rosie is an accomplished speaker, writer and consultant. She has spent more than 20 years in worksite health promotion and organizational development. In addition to her bachelor’s degrees in Kinesiology and Public Health, and a doctorate in Organization and Management, Rosie is also a Certified Intrinsic Coach® Mentor, Certified Judgment Index Consultant, a Certified Valuations Specialist, and a Board Certified Coach. Rosie uses this unique combination to work with executive and leadership teams to create comprehensive development strategies centered on shifting thinking patterns. She is a contributing author to the book, “Organization Development in Healthcare — High Impact Practices for a Complex and Changing Environment.” She leverages these principles to help organizations develop and implement strategies to create a thriving workplace culture that values and supports wellbeing and the unique, intrinsic needs of employees. Contact Rosie at rosie@salveopartners.com or drrosieward.com.

View all articles by Rosie Ward »