Issue 58

Well-being, HR and science of complexity

Florentina Șipețean
Consulting Manager @Azimut Happy Employees


The following article is like the news with 7 Earth-sized planets discovered by NASA. We all (especially the geeks among us) saw this coming given the technological advancement but we needed real proof to come out. This article is about well-being, the role of the HR department and a new theory that approaches it from a different perspective. We will either talk about it decades from now or it will simply be a paradigm that has no ground in reality. So the starting questions: should we let groups to self-organize themselves? Who then should decide about everyone`s well-being?

Why well-being?

In real life, we've all heard the concept of well-being alongside with wellness, parenting classes or workshops for cooking sourdough bread. In conferences and events there is this notion of well-being meaning to be comfortable with yourself, to learn to adapt to all the changes that occur in your life. For HR and management this term reflects internal policies like how to compete with high attrition or re-structuring the system of benefits.

This multidimensional approach in real life is caused mainly by decades of research where academia couldn't agree on a "good enough" definition or on designing strong interventions in organizational environments. This is why, at the very beginning, well-being meant mor the absence of illness than a criterion for your "quality of life" or your degree of life satisfaction etc. There is even an article saying why today there isn`t a common understanding of how we should spell well-being: well-being or wellbeing?

The talk from John Oliver about scientific study can easily be applied to well-being also. A funny comparison: he says that "everything causes — and does not cause — cancer". You can put the term "well-being" instead of cancer and the phrase would still be true. A common belief among HR, top and middle management, consultants and trainers is that well-being can be controlled and predicted, meaning you do something in your organization, and well-being shows up. On the other side, we have the theoretical frameworks: saying "happiness" in each motivational phrase, social media activity (like Action For Happiness) and a full list of researchers that are debunking the term of well-being.

We were curious to see how someone is seeing gratitude exercises when he/she has to deal with a colleague`s aggressive behavior, low income (or even poverty) or a direct superior that doesn`t care of his/her workload. Can you be appreciative under any condition? What if seeing well-being in these terms is limiting our perspective on the essence of well-being? What if the "cause-effect" is not enough to explain all these forces that contributes to well-being or, worse, is misleading us?

How about the science of complexity?

We are now preparing a conference dedicated to organizational well-being. Not because it`s a fashion term, not because we think we have the best way of looking at this or because we`ve discovered the gravity again - it`s just because we want to have a common mindset in our local community and because we identified this need among HR practitioners and management we have interacted with. We had long hours of debate about how and whether companies should raise salaries, how to bring fruits on Monday or how to have a "WOW teambuilding" because this is what keeps their employees engaged. We truly hope that after the conference we will be looking at organizational well-being in terms of engagement, healthy relationships, meaning and accomplishments.

Who needs to deal with well-being in a company? This is everybody`s business. But there is a bunch of people that can facilitate the talk on well-being, especially when the top management is not promoting it. Rather than focusing on the content of HR and administrative, we should view HR as contributing through the process of strategic decision-making, and through change programs. Thus, the focus shifts away from looking at HR as a discrete entity in the organization towards a consideration of HR as one element contributing to the wider organizational goals and objectives, including the well-being ones. But the HR department needs specific instruments, because it can`t decide on budgets or human resources distribution, both crucial elements for well-being. They need to convince other actors. An important quest within this has been to find something, the 'dependent variable', the theory that could bring employee satisfaction. For a long period of time, raising salaries or improving communication process was the recommended solution. But this didn`t work each time… So, what to do in order to have well-being at work?

And here come the 7 Earth-sized planets… A few researchers have dedicated their work to connect well-being with the science of complexity, and the most recent break-through approach is about complex adaptive systems. You might say: wow, another term that nobody knows a clue about. Actually it is the same paradigm that wonders whether we should organize people or we need to let the group to organize itself. If you do not impose a hierarchy, the group will develop its own informal leadership, and this might be worse if we do not have grown up people in charge?

You cannot decide how the well-being looks like for your employees, or for your colleagues. You need to ask them or better yet, let them decide. But there has to be some criteria, you cannot just drop the idea of self-organizing groups. You need aware people, responsible, with a deep understanding of the company and results expected and with openness to others emotions and his/her own state of mind.

We decided to abandon the cause-effect relationship and to challenge a new one: rather than seeing well-being based on a theoretical list of pillars, levels or factors, well-being means the result and the consequence of an ongoing connections, something that emerges in the same time between people and the contexts they live and work in. Some of these connections might be financial, emotional or based on a community.

Case study: Ashmos et al. (2000) carried out one study in a hospital setting using the complex system framework. They found out that hospitals with more complex internal arrangements and stakeholder group participation performed better on a range of financial performance measures than those with less complex arrangements. They also argue that allowing maximum participation in strategic decision making (thus capitalizing on the knowledge contained within the system nodes), and ensuring few mechanistic constraints on activity, coupled with encouraging people to work collaboratively on problem-solving, encouraging variety and allowing people to explore options, was the most successful change management approach.

Why the science of complexity & self-organizing groups might be the answer for well-being and what to do with HR departament?

  1. Each system has its own way: This will challenge us to think in terms of each company`s environment. If you think wisely, the complex perspective is the answer: we tried the gratitude exercise (Seligman & Lyubomirsky) in IT companies in Cluj, in companies working in BPO industry, in a factory in Dej, with a group of people from a local NGO and with international volunteers. Result: different outcomes. Answer: gratitude may increase and may decrease well-being depending on lot of circumstances (people, contexts, processes). HR - No top-down, but bottom-up: because a complex adaptive system is self-organizing, an understanding of the emergent properties within the system becomes crucial, rather than the development and imposition of top-down policies such as HR strategies. In the context of social systems, this means that organizations are self-organized rather than managed top down, with knowledge and learning distributed throughout the network, and the acceptance of a degree of uncertainty and unpredictability. For the HR system, this means that the ability to connect with the rest of the organizational network is critical. There is also an old debate: if you let the group without a hierarchy imposed by organization, there will automatically be informal leadership and it might be worse because you do not control it.

  2. Your well-being, not ours! You are far away from leaving the well-being and happiness as being an individual matter (subjective well-being). If you see the workplace as a set of ongoing connections, you see that sometimes individual interventions (like training or counseling) also need organizational or structural change (in terms of workloads or working from home). So, sometimes well-being can be a manager's job or a company responsibility. HR- Solid composition: Complexity theory suggests that there are "loose-tight structures" and this is the appropriate way of managing, combining a core of central values or structures with varying interpretations at a local level. There are "enabling conditions" comprising both enablers and inhibitors of change. Critical to these enabling conditions is a structure and culture that are sufficiently loose to enable new solutions, or self-organizing to emerge. This suggests that creating an HR system with a stable core and loose periphery may be the most appropriate way forward.

  3. I`m not panicked - You embrace the continuous change like … every day. People that are seeing complex perspectives understand dimensions above their own ego. Well-being emerges when we lean into uncertainty with openness - with a willingness to learn and lead in response to our ever-changing contexts. Willingness to be vulnerable, responding to the intended and unintended consequences of our actions as they emerge.

HR- Communication is the key: According to the complexity systems perspective, much more significance is attached to the network 'nodes', the individuals and groups placed at points of intersection within the system (you can see this through sociograms). So HR is not about only HR strategy, instead is as much driven bottom-up and from critical network nodes as it is top-down. Communication and the processes by which the HR system interacts with the rest of the organisation become critical.




  • Accenture
  • BT Code Crafters
  • Accesa
  • Bosch
  • Betfair
  • MHP
  • Connatix
  • BoatyardX
  • AboutYou
  • Telenav
  • .msg systems
  • Grab
  • Colors in projects