State Leadership Conference

What does it take to succeed in today's marketplace? A greater focus on employees, David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, told attendees of the 2012 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards ceremony at the State Leadership Conference.

"Forward-thinking organizations understand that high performance and sustainable business results require attention to people," said Ballard, assistant executive director for marketing and business development in APA's Practice Directorate and APA Practice Organization.

And increasingly, he said, businesses are doing just that. Each year, APA recognizes employers that foster positive work environments that help both organizations and employees thrive. This year's awards celebrated five organizations that offer comprehensive programs designed to improve employee well-being while enhancing organizational performance, as well as nine Best Practices Honorees recognized for a single policy or program (see sidebar).

"There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but the kind of practices employees put in place tend to be in five categories: employee involvement, recognition, health and safety, employee growth and development and work/life balance," said Ballard. "At the center of the model is effective two-way communication."

Those practices pay off, he added. Only 24 percent of employees at this year's award-winning workplaces reported chronic work stress compared to the national average of 41 percent. And just 14 percent of their employees planned to seek jobs elsewhere, compared with 28 percent nationally.

But most organizations believe change is hard, said Dan Heath, co-author of the 2010 book "Switch," in a keynote address at the ceremony.

Psychological research can help both organizations and individuals change for the better, he said, citing as one example the work of Jonathan Haidt, PhD, at the University of Virginia. Haidt, he said, explained the difficulty of making changes by comparing the brain to an elephant—representing the brain's emotional side—being ridden by a man who think he's in charge—representing the brain's rational side.

When organizations want to change things, Heath said, they typically appeal to the elephant's rider with PowerPoints and data. "Meanwhile, there's an elephant in the brain of every employee that is comfortable with the way things worked last year," he said.

Heath proposed a three-part alternative:

Giving the rider direction. When the rational mind receives too much data, said Heath, it can get stuck in "analysis paralysis." He offered as an alternative the example of Jerry Sternin, who was sent to Vietnam to tackle child malnutrition. Data suggested that to solve the problem, Sternin would have to reform the education system, ensure clean water and eliminate poverty—all "true but useless" information, said Heath. Instead, Sternin went to a single village, explored what mothers of well-nourished kids were doing differently than other moms and had them teach their peers how to do it. Instead of asking what the problem is and how to solve it, said Heath, Sternin asked what worked and how to clone it. Within six months, two-thirds of the village's children were better-nourished, and the approach has spread worldwide.

Using emotion to motivate the elephant. Emotions—not facts—are what motivate people, said Heath. At one big manufacturing company, for instance, a finance department employee noticed that the company's factories were making their own deals with vendors, even after he explained that centralized purchasing could save the company $1 billion over a decade. Frustrated, he collected sample work gloves from every factory, attached the prices paid for them and dumped all 424 of them on a conference table. The result? Company leaders were shocked to see they were paying radically different prices for the same products and agreed to change.

Shaping a path. Removing obstacles—and making it easy to do the right thing—can help everyone change for the better, said Heath. Simply etching a picture of a housefly in the bottom of urinals in a men's bathroom at the Amsterdam airport reduced "spillage" by 80 percent overnight, for example.

Heath's final advice? Accept that repeated failure is part of successful change. "Parents have the right instinct when most executives don't," he said. "When a kid is learning how to take his first steps and falls on his face, parents don't say, 'Well, I guess he's not cut out for walking.'"

—R.A. Clay