Systems Thinking Tips for a Healthy Culture

“Just as scientists, doctors, veterinarians, and engineers study and create systems, leaders must study, change, and create cultures.” The tricky part for leaders is that a culture is also a system--well, it’s many systems working together. So, they have to confront all the underlying systems which shape culture including: values, support systems, social norms, processes, feedback, and rewards systems. It’s daunting, but not impossible. Recognizing that all these systems influence and support company culture is the first step to change.

It is also important to recognize that culture is not the “job” of one department, or a couple of people. It is a collective effort supported by guiding principles. Silos can ruin culture.

As an example, here are some key areas of focus for crafting a wellness culture within the systems that guide human behavior:

Empowering Individuals - Everyone within a culture needs to feel valued and empowered enough to act and influence others. Starting with the individual is important to strengthening any type of company culture, but it is especially true for a wellness culture. We all have a role and responsibility for our own health. It’s a very personal matter.

The number one reason employees don’t participate in company wellness programs is because they “can make changes on [their] own”. So, instead of forcing or coercing participation, leaders can empower employees with access, knowledge, and support. Examples could be access to healthy food, or a company gym. Knowledge from a company-wide “healthy living” newsletter. And, support could be as simple as setting good examples and providing encouragement.

“When health and well-being are actively promoted, companies are 2.5 times more likely to be viewed as a top-performing organization”

Align Rewards System with Desired Behaviors - Microcultures, rituals, and traditions are systems, which exist within a culture and they can strongly influence our behaviors, including those that affect our health and wellness. Because people tend to conform to “norms” in order to satisfy their sense of belonging, leaders have a responsibility to shape social norms by rewarding desired behaviors and discouraging undesirable ones. This act of setting boundaries ultimately directs the flow of cultural behavior.

"Unless the reward system lines up with the culture, it will not change behavior"  

The behaviors we are regularly exposed to will shape our own, so even wellness can be contagious. Science supports the monkey-see, monkey-do phenomenon, from runaway positive feedback loops in economies, to preferential attachment in social media, to homophily in public policy. The question to keep in mind is: How can we make the most of this tendency within complex systems to encourage beneficial patterns such as healthy lifestyles?

Identify Leverage Points (Values) - John Sterman stated, our guiding values offer the most important leverage point for sustainable change” and a small change could lead to a large shift in behavior.

Speaking not only to the company’s guiding values, but also to individual value systems is a powerful tool for impacting human behavior. Leaders can create a framework for company values, while also finding space to accept and respect the values of everyone.

A values exercise is a great way to capture this information. Have employees put their top values on a board in sticky notes and then connect these “nodes” to find the strongest connections in the network. How do these values map back to wellness? How do people define wellness differently? Connecting individual values to company values gives leaders the ability to think about and create goals which will shift behavior.

Feedback - If a company wants to “manage” the health and wellbeing of their employees, leaders must collect and study feedback. Feedback is crucial to sustainability. But, simply collecting it is not enough, they need to recognize that people have different rhythms and timescales, so sometimes observation is better than intervention. Not all feedback requires a response, but it is still important to constantly collect and analyze it keeping in mind that their goal is long term sustainability.

Just remember: wellness can be contagious, and a shift in culture can be achieved.

Culture is the Organization’s immune system
— Michael Watkins

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