Well-being and Thriving Motivate Inclusive LeadershipJan 19, 2024
Promoting well-being has become a popular trend, as companies recognize its positive impact on productivity. This becomes even more critical with the challenges posed by societal trends, such as the global pandemic, social media-related stress, and the complexities of our current situation (poly-crisis). This article kicks off our 2024 exploration of Inclusive Leadership by emphasizing the need for organizations to go beyond superficial approaches and make well-being and thriving central to cultural development.
Well-being is defined as a positive state contingent upon five interdependent factors: Physical, Emotional, Social- and Relational, Intellectual, and Spiritual well-being. Each factor contributes to one's level of optimism and personal agency as well as the ability to thrive.
- Recognizing and discussing the importance of well-being.
- Integrating well-being into the vision for desired organizational culture.
- Personalizing well-being at leadership levels.
- Encouraging storytelling and exploration of well-being among team members.
- Conducting periodic reviews and action-oriented dialogues about well-being.
- Providing supportive tools and cultural practices.
- Making social- and relational health a key criterion in organizational design.
We conclude that inclusive leadership is essential for organizations to authentically support well-being and thriving. Simply launching corporate wellness programs without addressing cultural and structural realities will not lead to credible and genuine well-being and thriving.
Well-being is trendy. Increasingly, companies are realizing the benefits of promoting it in the workplace. After all, employees who are not healthy are less productive – their motivation and engagement suffer, and they are more likely to take time off work. This perennial truism is amplified by alarming societal trends and conditions accelerating the detrimental impact on large segments of the workforce, that range from unhealthfulness to sheer anguish.
- The social isolation and traumatic stress experience of the global pandemic have left indelible marks.
- The proliferation of social media is correlated with rising levels of anxiety and depression.
- The stress and threats to personal security and safety as a result of our current poly-crisis, i.e.; the convergence of multiple complex and global challenges.
- The disappearance of reliable norms and routines that synchronize our social and professional lives causes disorientation.
- The lack of confidence in what is true and trustworthy versus what is fake and manipulative creates uncertainty.
- The business transformations underway across organizations with its multiple change initiatives instill insecurity and reinforce feelings of uncertainty, and loss of personal agency, purpose, and meaning.
- The forces of socio-economic and political polarization, fragmentation, inequities, and injustice amplify stress, uncertainty, and insecurity.
It is enlightened self-interest that should lead organizations and their leaders to help people cope and contribute to positive societal and cultural changes. That means that the concern for well-being must go significantly beyond the superficial association with spas, yoga classes, mindfulness, or flexible, hybrid models of working.
In this article, we will explore questions such as, “What exactly does "well-being" mean in this context? How can organizations promote it, particularly among their increasingly diverse and globally distributed employee base? And, what does it mean for the practices of inclusive leadership?”
What exactly does "well-being" mean in this context?
Well-being is a positive state that relies on a combination of five interdependent factors that promote thriving, optimism, and personal agency. It is useful to reflect on each of these areas and better understand how organizations and leaders can meaningfully impact them.
- Physical Well-Being
This refers to the state of our physical health and is crucial to preventing diseases. It includes our diet, exercise habits, sleep patterns, and overall level of fitness. But it also means an absence of acute or chronic physical danger and/or threats.
Organizations can promote physical well-being by providing safe, hygienic, and ergonomically sound, and conducive workplaces and conditions (including sufficient break times, opportunities, and encouragement of frequent movement, activity, exercise, as well as healthy nutrition and hydration. It also includes maximizing sustainability and minimizing pollution and emissions (including CO2) that have a long-term detrimental effect on well-being and thriving.
- Emotional Well-Being
This refers to our ability to cope with stress and manage emotions effectively. It is critical for maintaining good mental health and motivation, as well as preventing burnout. It includes our sense of belonging and psychological safety, feeling recognized and valued, and experiencing emotions of optimism and resilience. Additionally, it includes acting with a sense of purpose and being encouraged and supported in one’s own growth and development.
Organizations can promote emotional well-being by understanding the subjective meaning and experience of work for different constituencies. This also includes recognizing the markers of inclusiveness and belonging, so that gaps can be flagged and specific actions taken to improve the employee experience. Importantly, this also includes paying attention to the way the organization is structured and roles are defined and allocated. Also, it is important to ensure that processes, systems, and crucially behavioral norms are designed to enable and support thriving. For instance, it means recognizing and normalizing shared human vulnerability, giving room for personal story-telling and sharing, providing stress-management resources, including counseling or therapy services, flexible and hybrid work arrangements, and recognizing and rewarding employee achievements.
- Social and Relational Well-Being
Organizations can be understood as social structures that define and rationalize interactions, relationships, and collaboration. Social and relational well-being means that interactions and relationships are structured in ways that promote healthy relationships among their employees and stakeholders (clients, customers, etc.) as well as the community as a whole. Social well-being is a crucial driver of mental health in that it prevents social isolation, and encourages full participation and contribution by all.
Organizations can improve social and relational well-being by guaranteeing and preserving the fundamental rights, dignity, and equitable inclusion of all. This includes recognizing inequities and injustice, and promoting relational healing, and securing the ability to form and maintain positive relationships with others. They may routinely monitor and improve the quality and state of relationships within the community and among its members. In addition, it is essential for organizations and leaders to provide transparent communication as well as resources for navigating conflict constructively, frequent team-building and bonding activities, and opportunities for employees to participate in community services.
- Intellectual Well-Being
This refers to our ability to learn, grow, and develop new skills, knowledge, and expertise of both the individual members and the organizational system as a whole. It includes promoting and institutionalizing curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking skills, as well as constructive debate and decision-making. Intellectual well-being is crucial for maintaining good mental health and preventing cognitive decline of individuals and groups.
Organizations can promote intellectual well-being by building a culture of continuous learning and improvement. This requires attention to psychological safety, as trust, vulnerability, and failing, as well as time, space, and habits of experimentation and reflection, are critical components of a learning culture. Furthermore, organizations can provide ample opportunities for learning and development, and encourage and support employees to pursue hobbies and interests.
- Spiritual Well-Being
This area does not refer to specific religious or spiritual belief systems or practices. Rather, it means that organizations and the work they do, provide an authentic sense of meaning, purpose, agency, and positive social identity for their employees and stakeholders. This means organizations need to develop resonant values, beliefs, and behaviors, integrate them into all aspects of their operations, and embody them, particularly in moments of existential crises for their individual members, collectively, as well as societally.
Organizations can promote spiritual well-being by cultivating mindfulness, empathy, compassion, and shared responsibility as critical components of their cultures. This may include encouraging and offering opportunities for reflection and meditation, encouraging volunteerism and community service, and inclusively engaging employees and stakeholders to make their collective pursuits more meaningful and purposeful.
These five factors cannot be separated nor can they be thought of in isolation, they build an interdependence that either promotes or inhibits health, well-being, and thriving. At the organizational level, this manifests as "culture", at the individual level as "habits" and "behaviors", and at the group/team level – the nexus of organization and individual as "norms" and "practices." It is at this nexus where inclusive leadership matters most and becomes critical to building and sustaining a culture of well-being. For well-being to become real, authentic, and sustained both the organizational and individual practices need to be aligned and become mutually and dynamically reinforcing.
The ethos of inclusive leadership catalyzes and reinforces this alignment through specific practices:
- Explicitly recognize and talk about the importance of well-being. It is important to validate a deeper and broader understanding of what well-being means. Also, acknowledge personal and systemic biases, stereotypes, and barriers affecting it.
- Anchor the pursuit of well-being and thriving as an important aspect of the desired culture and focus of collective leadership. Avoid relegating well-being to a special “program" or "initiative" that exists separated from other competing initiatives or how work is done, structured, organized, and managed.
- Role model the personalization of well-being. The more powerful and influential you are in your organization, the more important this is and the more it will impact the culture. This means embracing vulnerability and sharing openly how well-being shows up for you and what you are doing to navigate the various factors and dimensions.
- Encourage story-telling and compassionate exploration of well-being among team members and dialogue about ways to enhance it. This requires a minimum of trust and psychological safety If people are reluctant to engage in this type of exploration, your priority will be to lay this foundation first. Since trust and psychological safety are elements of Social-/Relational Well-being, focusing on these elements will contribute to laying the important foundation for well-being and thriving. Importantly, this is also where diversity awareness is critical. Different populations, based on their social and experiential background and identity, experience the factors and relative importance of well-being factors differently, including self-disclosure, vulnerability, and empathy towards others.
- Introduce and sustain periodic reviews and action-oriented dialogues about well-being and thriving. This should happen primarily at the team or group level. Importantly, these reviews and dialogues should be focused on improving the lived support for one another. This requires assessing the impact of work and workplace design, normative expectations and biases, supportive systems, processes, policies, etc. It is useful to establish and use a specific framework that accounts for the particularities of the work context and cultural realities of your organization, including specific indicators of well-being and thriving.
- Ensure and reinforce the availability of supportive tools and cultural practices. This includes DEI embedded in all aspects of talent management; a feedback-rich environment; equitable assignments, opportunities, and standards (including pay and performance); learning and development, equitable sponsorship, stress- and change management support and resources, attentiveness to safety needs and requirements of all (including physical, psychological, and relational safety), and others.
- Make social-relational health and well-being a key criterion for the organization's design and structure. This includes vendor and supply chain relationships, customer/client relationships, team and team member relationships, and supervisory / reporting relationships.
Clearly, it is not enough for organizations to launch and sponsor "corporate wellness programs" that ignore the factors above in the context of their cultural and structural reality. Only when organizations embrace the ethos of inclusive leadership as their desired leadership paradigm and when it is operationalized at the nexus level of groups and teams will well-being and thriving become credible, authentic, and real. And, a broad and deep understanding of well-being and thriving is foundational to the practice of inclusive leadership.
1. This includes the climate crisis, social-, economic- and political instability, rising inflation, technological revolution, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the terrorist attacks on Israel and Jewish identity, the horrific retaliation it has provoked, and the potential expansion of this conflict.