How to Leverage the Power of Language to Support A Thriving Workplace Culture

FUSION colorWords have an amazing power to impact the way people think and feel. As the great English writer/storyteller Rudyard Kipling put it:

“Words are the most powerful drugs used by mankind.
Not only do words infect, egotize, narcotize and paralyze,
but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain.”

In our new book, “How to Build a Thriving Culture at Work, Featuring The 7 Points of Transformation,” Dr. Rosie Ward and I create a blueprint for moving Organizational and Employee Wellbeing into the 21st century. Instead of mechanistic, reductionist, dualistic, patriarchal, biomedical scientific underpinnings, we use quantum physics, chaos theory and complexity science, psychoneuroimmunology, and the latest discoveries in neuroscience as the foundations on which we build our platform for change.

As you might expect, with a vastly different scientific lens through which to view organizational and employee wellbeing, many of the terms we use throughout the book, as well as the meaning of some commonly used terms, differ markedly from those used in traditional employee wellness and engagement initiatives. We do this purposefully to better align our language with the updated scientific understandings we introduce in the book.

Here are some important shifts that can help you update your language to better support a thriving workplace culture:

  • From Participation to EngagementAlthough business and health professionals often use these terms interchangeably they really have very different meanings. Participation simply refers to taking part in or completing some program or task. Employee Engagement is a well-known construct in the business world. It refers to how employees feel about their work, as Ringleb and Rock write in a fascinating article titled “NeuroLeadership in 2009”:

“When a person is engaged, they are attracted to, inspired by, committed to and even fascinated by their work or their input to the work relationship.”1

Workplace wellness professionals commonly misuse the word engagement when they are actually describing wellness program participation. In fact, it is possible (though perhaps not likely) to have high participation in wellness programs, and not have good employee engagement. Likewise, it is possible to have people highly engaged in their work who do not necessarily participate in programs.

From an organizational perspective, it is employee engagement that is critical, as 70% of the U.S. workforce is not engaged at a staggering yearly cost to business of hundreds of billions of dollars. To make matters worse, too often these days participation in wellness programs is driven by coercion. In these cases, the increased participation is likely to result in diminished engagement as employees overwhelmingly dislike being threatened with punishment for not participating.

In reality this scenario is more accurately described as compliance, and we don’t believe compliance has much of a role in organizational or employee wellbeing. Instead of focusing on increasing participation in events and programs; focus on enhancing employee engagement.

  • From “Getting” People to Change (exercise, lose weight, participate, increase their productivity, etc.) to Creating The Conditions for Change — The former term clearly originates from a control-oriented, Skinnerian conceptualization of change, and unfortunately is one of the most common phrases uttered by business and wellness professionals alike. What we know from 30 years of conclusive research is that extrinsic motivation:
    1. Does not promote sustained change
    2. Diminishes performance and creativity
    3. Fosters short-term thinking
    4. Encourages cheating and lying
    5. Becomes habit forming
    6. Reduces or extinguishes intrinsic motivation

We discuss in detail the pitfalls of using extrinsic motivation in workplace wellness interventions elsewhere. Instead of trying to “get” people to behave a certain way, consider refocusing your efforts to creating the conditions for change and supporting desired outcomes.

  • From “Driving” (participation, engagement, performance, etc.) to Fostering Engagement and Eliciting Better Thinking — We affectionately refer to the first term as the Bonanza Effect. When the early American settlers needed to get cattle to the market to be slaughtered for meat, they did so with a cattle drive. Although we may be OK driving cattle and perhaps our cars, driving people just doesn’t make sense and is actually counterproductive as autonomy is one of the key determinants of employee engagement.Autonomy comes from the ancient Greek auto meaning “self” and nomos meaning “law” so literally one who gives himself one’s own law. Human autonomy flows from the desire and ability to direct our own lives. At the most basic level it is about having freedom from external control or influence. The concept of a cattle drive is clearly the antithesis of this. Instead, focus on eliciting better thinking, fostering engagement, and supporting people to grow and thrive by acknowledging their humanity and complexity.
  • From “Motivating” to Supporting Motivation is not something you can do to another person; to try to motivate others is again to fall back on viewing them as controllable machines, rodents, or small children. The literature is conclusive that the most effective motivation comes from within, and there is scant evidence that you can “get” people to be intrinsically motivated through the use of extrinsic motivation. Therefore, instead focus on creating the conditions for change, supporting people to grow and thrive and eliciting better thinking.
  • From Human Resources and Human Capital to Human PartnersResources and capital both hearken back to the 17th century conceptualization of humans as inanimate objects like coal or money to be used and manipulated as you would any other immaterial resource. As one young CEO put it:

“My dad’s generation views human beings as human resources.
They’re the two-by-fours you need to build your house.
For me, it’s a partnership between me and my employees.
They’re not resources. They’re partners.”2

Unlike inanimate resources, human partners have a need for autonomy, a need to direct their own lives. Given that, consider shifting your language to talk about partners, people, and employees — viewing them as whole, self-directing human beings who only support what they help to create. In fact, progressive companies such as Whole Foods, Target, and others refer to their employees as “team members” or “partners.”

  • From Culture of Health to Thriving Workplace Culture Workplace wellness professionals often refer to healthy workplace cultures as those that subsidize gym memberships, offer fresh produce in their cafeterias, and have other policies, programs, and practices focused on trying to promote healthy lifestyle behaviors. In fact, this is not really describing organizational culture at all, but rather organizational climate.As with employee engagement, the business world has clearly defined parameters for what determines a healthy organizational culture. With this in mind we borrow from one of the most highly regarded Organizational experts, Dr. Patrick Lencioni, when we describe a thriving (healthy) workplace culture as an organization in which there are minimal politics and confusion, low turnover, and high morale and productivity. So instead of focusing on actions that enhance workplace climate to support healthy lifestyle behaviors, focus on what will truly make a difference in creating a thriving workplace culture.
  • From Wellness to Wellbeing We believe the term “wellness,” although originally encompassing a holistic perspective, has become overly linked to a narrow biomedical conceptualization of human health. As such, the vast majority of workplace programs continue to focus on identifying physiological risk factors and targeting personal behaviors related to exercise, nutrition and smoking. Instead, consider using the term wellbeing to reinforce the holistic nature of the human experience (career, social, financial, physical, emotional, and community wellbeing) with the critical understanding that career wellbeing is likely the most important and perhaps the most neglected of all aspects of wellbeing.
  • From Personal Responsibility to Relationships and Interconnectedness — Traditional approaches to employee health have focused on individual behaviors as the major determinants of health status. As a result, personal responsibility is widely used as a rationale for outcome-based incentive programs. While people have a role in their own health and wellbeing, the literature is clear that the social determinants of health are by far and away the most impactful.3Taking lessons we have learned from complexity and chaos theory, whether it be stress at home or at the workplace, or work-life balance itself, it is critical to address the larger contexts if we hope to have any chance of long-term success. For example, teaching stress management techniques to employees may be helpful but will not negate the toxic health effects of a dysfunctional work environment. Therefore, rather than focus on personal responsibility, emphasize the complexity and interconnectedness of all things and the relationships that are critical to both organizational and employee wellbeing.
  • From Weight Loss Programs, Contests and Competitions to Helping People Come to Peace With Their Bodies and Food Thirty plus years of conclusive and consistent evidence demonstrates that these mainstays of traditional workplace wellness offerings have little chance of actually helping people to lose weight or be healthier in the long term. In fact, there is growing evidence that these programs may negatively impact health for many people.4 As workplace wellness guru Dr. Dee Edington said almost a decade ago:


Weight loss money is money down the toilet.

Instead of offering programs that focus on making people smaller, promote initiatives that help people to come to peace with their bodies and their food.

  • From Siloes to the Fusion of Organizational Development and Employee Wellbeing Finally, following in the 17th century tradition of the separation of mind, body, and spirit into 3 distinct entities; the body treated by medical science, the spirit addressed by the church, and the dispirited mind given to psychiatry, organizational development and employee wellbeing have traditionally been considered as separate entities and typically addressed by different sets of professionals.Just as we now know that human beings are complex living systems in which the mind, body, and spirit are inextricably interconnected, we believe the same is true for organizations – also complex living systems. Therefore, consider focusing on the fusion of organizational and employee wellbeing, with a clear understanding that sustainable change is highly unlikely in a toxic work environment.

Take Home

We have provided numerous links and references if you want to read more about these important issues and there are lots of additional free resources on our website, as well. In an effort to sum up the most important take homes from this information we would say that, for health and business professionals alike:

“The best, and probably the only way to ‘get’ employees to act like creative, thinking, responsible, autonomous adults is to treat them as if that is exactly what they are.”

Interested in learning how to support change in organizations via the fusion of organizational and employee wellbeing? Join us for our Thriving Workplace Culture Certification course.


  1. Ringleb, A.H., Rock, D. “NeuroLeadership in 2009.” NeuroLeadershipJournal
  1. Pink, D.H. “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.”New York: Riverhead Books.
  1. Marmot, M. “The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects our Health and Longevity.”
  1. Bhammar, D.M., Gaesser, G.A. “Health Risks Associated with Weight Cycling.” in “Wellness not Weight: Health at Every Size and Emotional Interviewing.” Ellen R. Glovsky.

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: or

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