Organizational and Employee Wellbeing: “Creating the Conditions” for Change

We are constantly asked the question, “if I don’t use incentives, how do I motivate my employees to _____?”(work harder, be safer, be healthier, participate in programs, etc.).

Our response is always the same. Though motivation at the workplace is an extremely important issue, this is simply the wrong question to ask, because motivation is not something that can be “done to” someone. You can’t “get” someone else to be intrinsically motivated. The proper question to be asked is: “How can we create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?”1

First and foremost, creating the conditions starts with fostering thriving organizational wellbeing. In his book, “Management Rewired,” Charles S. Jacobs put it perfectly when he wrote:

All we need to do is shape the culture that shapes the thinking.2

Shaping the thinking means embracing the “cognitive paradigm,” recognizing the importance of the cognitive process over the behavior itself. The nuances of our behavior communicate what we are thinking; therefore, change initiatives only work when we change the way we think. In other words, lasting change needs to come from within. People have to first gain clarity about what matters to them, considering their whole life, and tap into better thinking.

Think about it: Most people you know who have made some sort of profound change started by having some sort of “awakening” or new thinking about what truly matters to them. So we need to think less about motivating people and more about creating the conditions to support better thinking; only then can we continue to effectively nurture and support individual change. As Paul Marciano states in his book, “Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work”:

At the end of the day, successful organizations don’t motivate employees; they engage them.
Motivating employees and engaging them are entirely distinct concepts.

Change in Thriving Workplace Cultures

In workplace cultures where organizational and employee wellbeing thrive, change is embraced and encouraged. How do your organization and your employees view change? Is it embraced or dreaded? When it comes to change, leaders will be much more effective by envisioning running businesses with human beings who don’t like being controlled. If organizations want to have engaged and intrinsically motivated employees who can face adaptive challenges, they can create the conditions for change by promoting:

  • Autonomy (people being able to think and do for themselves)
  • Mastery (people having opportunities to learn and grow, and become highly skilled)
  • Purpose (people feeling their work is meaningful and connected to a greater purpose and vision)4

The more employees are included in guiding the change process, the greater the likelihood that it will be successful. For example, at online shoe and clothing giant Zappos, employees are encouraged never to accept or be comfortable with the status quo because not responding quickly and adapting to change can be devastating. So Zappos employees are encouraged, supported, and recognized for bringing forward new ideas (autonomy). Employees are provided constant opportunities for growth and development (mastery), and the leaders ensure that all employees have great clarity on the culture and vision, and how each of them fits into the picture (purpose).5

This has translated into great success. Zappos has become one of the world’s largest online shoe and clothing retailers since it was founded in 1999. Just 10 years after it began, the company was sold to Amazon in 2009 for an estimated $1.2 billion. Zappos is known for providing exceptional customer service and building customer loyalty while consistently being listed on “Fortune” magazine’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work For” — even after being acquired by Amazon.

3 Steps for Creating the Conditions

If you want to support employees’ wellbeing and help them embark upon a meaningful, sustainable change journey, create the conditions and then let them be the authors of their own journey. So how do you create the conditions that support better thinking?

  1. Focus on culture. Effective thinking stems from trusting, safe relationships. If organizational culture/wellbeing is suffering, it will be impossible to create the conditions for individual employees to find their best thinking, and to elicit and nurture meaningful change.
  2. Support employees in navigating Adaptive Change. This means providing the support and context for employees to do the work to recognize when their thinking is, and isn’t, serving them well and where they are getting in their own way. Deliberately Developmental Organizations are a great example of how companies can leverage personal growth through adaptive change work to foster high organizational performance. Even if your organization doesn’t want to become a DDO, embrace and support space for pause and reflection; then engage employees to think, and make it safe for them to do so.
  3. Provide access to highly skilled Certified Intrinsic Coach® coaches. Instead of providing typical health coaches who focus on changing individual lifestyle behaviors, provide access to coaches who can activate their best thinking and support employees as whole beings to find better thinking about whatever matters to them and their wellbeing; this will more effectively support them in making adaptive changes.

As we move from a control-oriented approach to change, our focus becomes less on manipulating behavior and more on nurturing autonomy. We frame a different path for creating and supporting change for employees and organizations, a path more in line with the latest understandings of the nature of physical reality and the complexities of the human experience. In his groundbreaking work, “A New Ethic for Health Promotion: Reflections on a Philosophy of Health Education for the 21st Century,” Dr. David Buchanan sums up the pressing need for this alternative:

Instead of devoting all of our time and energy to creating the technologies of behavior control, I think that we should be moving in precisely the opposite direction: We should be doing everything in our power to increase human autonomy. Instead of seeking to develop programs that are more effective in altering people’s behavior, we should focus on aiding people to make their own choices about how they want to live in light of their best understanding of the good life for themselves.6

Thriving organizational and employee wellbeing requires rethinking change to build on a different foundation than we currently use; moving away from controlling behaviors and “quick fixes” to creating the conditions for developing better thinking. Trying to “do” differently without first thinking differently is doomed to fail because we will fall back on deeply rooted habits – period!

Find out more about creating the conditions for change in this FREE chapter from our book, “How to Build a Thriving Culture at Work, Featuring the 7 Points of Transformation.”


  1. Deci, E. L. & Flaste, R. (1996). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books.
  2. Jacobs, C.S. (2009). Management Rewired. New York: Penguin Group.
  3. Marciano, P. L., Ph.D. (2010). Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT™. New York: McGraw-Hill
  4. Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books
  5. Hseih, T. (2010). Delivering Happiness: A Path To Profits, Passion and Purpose. New York: Business Plus
  6. Buchanan, D.R. (June 2006). A New Ethic for Health Promotion: Reflections on a Philosophy of Health Education for the 21st Century. Health Education & Behavior, Vol. 33 (3): 290-304

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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