Fostering Organizational Health and Wellness

By Burke, W. Warner | People & Strategy, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Fostering Organizational Health and Wellness


Burke, W. Warner, People & Strategy


People & Strategy special editor, Michael Bazigos, Ph.D., recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. W. Warner Burke, Edward Lee Thorndike Professorship of Psychology and Education; education program coordinator for graduate programs in social-organizational psychology; and former chair of the Department of Organization and Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The interview was as wide ranging as the topic area, and touched on a variety of examples of healthy and unhealthy management--performance management, rewards and recognition, culture, climate and leadership--as well as the state of research linking organizational health to company performance and Dr. Burke's view of a critical success factor in organizational transformations which CHROs will especially want to note.

Michael Bazigos: To begin, there are two terms in this special issue's title: organizational health and wellness. How do you understand each of those terms, and how would you define them?

W. Warner Burke: I like the question because wellness is an outcome and health is a process, so that's the fundamental difference between the two. Obviously, we are talking about the same domain of life, but I would think that from the standpoint of trying to understand those terms vis-a-vis an organization whose leaders' ultimate objective is to make the organization as well as possible. So wellness is always a desired outcome and an objective. But to get there you have to focus on issues of health, and I don't believe that most executives understand what that means, or are necessarily equipped to build and sustain the health of the organization. It's interesting that people in organizations invoke the health metaphor, for example, "How sick can that decision process be?" or, "Well, last night when I got us into the wonderful land of wellbeing." So, we do use the language. When I say "we," I mean organizational members in general.

For example, here at Teachers College, we use language like that all the time. The word toxic is now in vogue, and has been for quite some time. We talk about toxic leaders; we talk about toxic organizations and so forth. And so the antidote to all that is health and wellness, but we're focused on the negative. This obviously contravenes the literature on positive psychology which validates that we focus unduly on negative aspects of organization behavior and insufficiently on the positive aspects. We do need to focus much more on the positive.

Positive psychology research has shown unequivocally that when practiced, it leads to healthier organizations, and people feel better when they focus on positive things. Now, that can obviously go too far, and it can become tired and heavy. But it is nevertheless out of balance in most organizational life, meaning that negative aspects--toxic aspects take more of our time, energy, and effort than positive ones. To get the same benefits, we have to work almost two to three times harder under negative conditions than we do under positive ones.

MB: What would you describe as the characteristics of a healthy organization? Let's take it from the positive side first.

WWB: I think that anything that helps people in the organization avoid paranoia can lead to much healthier situations. When others are closed and not open--when we don't know what's going on and why people are making decisions that we can't make, and things of that nature--that leads to "what" thinking: "What am I doing that people are trying to get me for?" and so forth, and that can indeed lead to feelings of stress--the opposite of wellness. For example, I was just talking to a colleague yesterday who mentioned how stressed she felt and had, she said, one of the worst headaches she has ever had. So there is a direct connection between how we perceive what is going on in an organization and our feelings in terms of wellness.

That argues, from my point of view, for organizations to be far more open than they are and allow people to express themselves without fear of retribution. …

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