Health and WellbeingWhy leaders need to stop talking about “wellbeing”

Why leaders need to stop talking about "wellbeing"

Leaders should talk about "good life", not "wellbeing", according to Professor Isaac Getz, Professor of Leadership and Innovation at ESCP Europe, and author of Freedom, Inc.

As I defined it in 2009, the liberated company is an organizational form that allows employees complete freedom and responsibility to take actions they decide are best. Liberated companies like W.L. Gore have been around for more than 60 years, and they, like their leaders, have won numerous awards for managerial innovation. Since 2010, the third generation of liberated companies has contributed to the emergence of a powerful corporate liberation movement in Europe involving companies such as Airbus, Decathlon, EDF, Michelin and hundreds of SMEs.

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the harshest critics of this approach have been the business leaders preparing to launch their own corporate liberation. Given the radical transformation required by such an approach, it would be irresponsible to embark on it lightly. However, this is exactly what certain business leaders have done. Without any examination they have made grand announcements, or worse, proclaimed that they have liberated their company simply because management has removed time clocks, introduced company socials or free yoga at lunchtime.  If anyone has believed these business leaders, it is because they have not examined this philosophy either.

The liberated company is not defined by any given model, perk or “wellbeing” programme – it is a philosophy based on the concepts of freedom and responsibility. It is up to the leader – with the employees – to create a unique organizational form, which they will develop over many years, to meet the employees’ fundamental human needs.

The problem with “wellbeing”

For this reason I prefer to talk about “good life” rather than about “wellbeing”. The company must be liberated to allow its employees to have a good life, not to generate performance. Of course, money is like oxygen to the company – it will wither and die without it – but we do not live to breathe, we breathe to live.

Although at least three years are required to determine whether a liberated business environment has taken root in SMEs and ten years for large corporations, the first positive signs may appear well in advance. For example, one business leader told how, very soon after the corporate liberation was launched, the male operators who began their shift at 5 a.m. started shaving and the female operators wearing lipstick. If you do not like your job – as is the case for the 89% of British employees according to Gallup – you are not likely to make an effort at 4 a.m. to look your best!

Wellbeing is too often confused with strategies ranging from free food to Yoga lessons – positive in themselves but having no direct impact on the nature of relationships at work. It is like bringing a part of our home life to work: the things we would like to do at home but cannot because we lack time, as we spend most of our waking hours at work during the week. The software firm SAS Institute pioneered “wellbeing” programmes, which were copied by Google in its early days – down to the free M&Ms. Such strategies are often described as HR schemes for retaining experts in high demand on the market. And they succeed, as reflected by employees’ vote for these companies in Fortune‘s “Best Companies to Work For” and “Great Place to Work” lists.

However, there are two sides to these rankings, as Fortune mentions: “Come for the generous sabbaticals, all-expenses-paid trips, or eye-popping bonuses, but stay for … the visionary management and sense of purpose”.

Conditions for the good life

Indeed, certain companies make it onto these lists not for their wellbeing programmes but for their good-life-oriented organisational environments. Because they have made the transformation from work relationships based on subordination and control – the main source of stress at work – to relationships based on trust and self-direction, their employees lead a good-life at work and are engaged in their company.  And as a result of doing so, they perform better and their companies enjoy higher profits

Let the old ways die

“Wellbeing” programmes are often put in place as a stealth attempt at a famed work-life balance. They hark back to the old ways, which are hard to die – this is natural. We still view work as suffering and attempt to balance it with the rest of our life, instead of letting work be a key part of life. We still view employees as subjects—children—who need to be cared about instead of as adults capable of looking after themselves.  We still expect managers “taking care” of their employees, instead of acting as leaders at the service of knowledgeable people.

Those are all paradigms of the corporate world but as Thomas Kuhn demonstrated in his masterful study of history and science, science progresses through paradigm shifts. We must respect those in the corporate world who are attached to the old paradigms and let time and circumstances reveal where the new ones are leading us. Namely, to the “good life.”


Isaac Getz is Professor of Leadership and Innovation at ESCP Europe, Paris/London, author of Freedom, Inc. and Leadership without ego. His forthcoming book is The Altruistic Corporation.

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