Expert Interview: Rosie Ward

March 24 2020 / by Mari Ryan

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan and Rosie Ward, PhD discuss rehumanizing the workplace. RosieWard

Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan. I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. Welcome to this workplace wellbeing essential series where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Rosie Ward.

Rosie is an accomplished speaker, author, coach, and consultant. Her expertise lies in organizational effectiveness, leadership development, and work site health promotion. She uses her extensive knowledge to help organizations develop and implement strategies to create workplaces where the organization and its people can thrive. Her new book, Rehumanizing the Workplace is due out on March 24. Rosie, welcome. I’m so excited to be here with you today.

Rosie Ward: Thank you. I’m excited to be here with you.

Mari Ryan: The work that both of us have done over the last decade or so has been focused on creating workplaces where people can thrive, where the organization really cares for people and focuses on what it takes to make a thriving workplace, not just for the business, but for the people as well. I’ve noticed in your recent work that you are focusing on rehumanizing the workplace. That says to me that it must mean that at some point the workplace has gone astray, has become dehumanized? So, what are the issues and how did we get to where we are today?

Rosie Ward: There is a lot in that, so let me see if I can unpack it one piece at a time. We kind of go back to the overarching umbrella of the world that we are living and working in. It is fundamentally different than it was, as you know, even five or ten years ago. I’m a big believer that when things get messy, and when things get complex and chaotic, being able to find language to put to the things that we’re experiencing helps us process it, helps us understand it, and helps us move forward.

I was super-excited a few years ago when I learned of an acronym that has been used for well over a couple of decades, VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. It stems from the Army War College, but it’s been fascinating because I cannot pick up a leadership book or a business book, or a Harvard Business Review article that literally doesn’t talk about VUCA, or talks about a disruptive world. VUCA describes what we’re living and working in and disruption is normal.

As we know that disruption can bring awesome things; technological advances, and growth, and all kinds of things that help us progress as a society and help us be better and more effective, but the more we automate things and the more that things become disruptive, there’s unintended consequences where dehumanization comes into play. One of the unintended consequences is, if you look at our biology as human beings, we are hard-wired to seek out comfort, familiarity, feeling good about ourselves, looking good. It’s in our DNA.

So, the inherent characteristics of a VUCA world – throw that out the window. They trigger us, like they trigger all these physiological, the amygdala, hijacking the brain, fight-or-flight response of oops, something’s wrong, danger, and what we find is happening is the more there is this progress and disruption happening, the more our brains are getting the signal that something is not right, that we are out of our comfort zone, and so we clamp down. What you see is people clinging even tighter to what is familiar to them and many times in the case of whether it’s organizational and employee wellbeing, whether it’s employee engagement, whether it’s safety, we are clinging to outdated strategies and approaches because it’s comfortable and because it’s familiar. We almost double-down on it because it’s too scary to think of, oh my gosh, I may have to completely redo what my expertise is in, or I am suddenly completely out of my realm.

So, you’ve got that part as far as cleaning up the strategies, then you have the inherent other part of that, which is when we are in this self-protective mode, we show up in all sorts of unproductive ways. We tell ourselves stories that are self-limiting and keep us safe, but keep us small. Renee Brown likes to call it armor, but we basically are showing up in a way that is like, okay, I want to feel safe so I don’t want you to see my inadequacies, see that I am imperfect, I’m going to try and hide my flaws, I’m wearing masks and armor.

Now you take a whole bunch of people who are showing up triggered, who are showing up in self-protective mode, and you put them in a team, in a family, in a community group, in a workplace, and it’s like a perfect storm of nonsense. This is, I think, at the fundamental core of what is contributed, and we can go into all the different paths of why, but it’s the inherent evolution of our society being a VUCA world and then it’s the human condition trying to reconcile how do you thrive and fit in in this disruptive reality that triggers all kinds of unproductiveness if we don’t pay attention to it.

Mari Ryan: Right, well I’m getting stressed just listening to your description of all that. It’s life, okay, I get it. This is really stressful. Among other things it’s really stressful for people, which makes me wonder how has all this dehumanizing really impacted the wellbeing of people in these kinds of organizations where they are dealing with all of this kind of transition and change.

Rosie Ward: I think that it has impacted us, unfortunately, in not really great ways. We have so many different studies, whether it’s from the American Psychological Association, or American Institute of Stress, or even globally. God bless Jeffrey Pfeffer in his research, which I think has been pioneering in this space, looking at what these dehumanized or toxic workplaces do to us. We see stress eroding our health and depending on the stats you look at, it’s anywhere around 80% of all doctor visits are stress-related. We know that chronic stress in work is a main source of it, and the list goes on and on. But what it’s fundamentally doing then is we are seeing that workplaces, according to Jeffrey Pfeffer’s research, is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States, and they are accounting for 8% of our healthcare spend.

It makes sense because if you look at it, if you think about … if you’re feeling devalued at work, if you are unable to reconcile this disruptive environment, if you are feeling like you don’t know how you fit in or where you thrive, or you feel like you don’t belong – there’s a ton of research on loneliness as well – if all of that is happening as human beings we want to seek out something to ease that discomfort, to ease that pain, to ease that stress. Of course you see people starting to revert to all kinds of behaviors, whether it’s isolation, whether it’s turning to numbing substances. It could be opioids, it could be overeating, it could be smoking or drinking, or whatnot. It could be engaging in other kinds of behaviors that are risky, it’s trying to help not feel that.

So, it’s this perfect storm and I think when our mental and emotional wellbeing is struggling, it’s kind of like all bets are off. It’s hard to function. There’s been such an increased focus on emotional wellbeing in the workplace, and mental wellbeing, and I’m so glad that the discussion, nationally and globally, is broadening because needs to, and I think we’ve got to be so careful that we don’t get into how do we help individuals be resilient when we’re not addressing the root cause of many of these issues, which is organizations are causing this.

There’s got to be an interconnected, wholistic way of addressing this. What I hate to see, and I can see it happening because it’s happened with other aspects of wellness, is let’s just start to do a lot of programming around resiliency and programming around mental health and referring people to resources, and it’s just like trying to mop up the water downstream and we’re not turning off the faucet.

Mari Ryan: Well, I see this all the time with my clients, or I get a call from someone who says, do you do stress programs? It’s like, well, let’s talk about what’s causing the stress. Until we get to the root cause and eliminate the root cause all the programs in the world aren’t going to be effective.

Rosie Ward: Yes, I call it playing a bad game of whack-a-mole. It doesn’t get you very far in it’s really frustrating.

Mari Ryan: Yeah, that’s a good description. What is it that employers can do to rehumanize the workplace so that people feel cared for and they are able to deal with some of these ongoing issues?

Rosie Ward: There’s a lot that employers can do, and it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You have to have a starting point. I think that first and foremost it’s taking a step back and looking at some key – I’m going to call them Business 101 principles – that if you want to improve the wellbeing of employees you have to start with what is called the organizational wellbeing side. In our new book we outline what we call five rehumanizing principles, which are not just applicable to workplaces. They are applicable to any group, any family, community group, team, etc. It’s based on a conglomeration of a whole bunch of people who know what they are talking about and a whole bunch of research.

The first is what we call build a light house. If you think about a lighthouse, what does it do? It cuts through the fog and it helps people find their way so when the VUCA seas or the VUCA storms of life are tossing us about and we don’t know which way to turn, we have something to guide our way forward. That is the metaphor or analogy we use is that organizations need to have a clear sense of purpose. This is where Simon Sinek and Patrick Lencioni “find your why” work comes in. As you know it’s beyond the mission and vision. There is truly clarity of purpose that people feel attached to and they feel like they belong. That purpose means something to them.

The next part of that is not just having that purpose, it’s operationalizing your core values and translating them into core behaviors, which is the stuff that I think Renee Brown’s latest research found that only 10% of organizations have actually operationalized their values. So, what are the key behaviors that are essential for your purpose to be realized, and what are the slippery or out-of-scope behaviors that we want to watch out for and that we train people, we develop people around them, we have corrective conversations if we need to, we offloaded people. I mean, they really are not just words on a wall or a website.

From the individual level it’s kind of a similar thing. If I am an individual in an organization and I don’t know my own purpose – Vic Strecker and other people’s research on purpose and individual wellbeing – but also, do I see how my purpose aligns within where the organization is going under some sort of synergy. And then, do I know what is expected of me? Do I know what I need in my life, in my own personal core values to show up as my best and live my purpose?

It is really twofold; does the organization know and is it clear, and do the individuals, do we all know in our lives, and then can we find that synergy and alignment and find a home that nurtures that? I think with organizations can do is if they haven’t done the work to find their why, yes you can hire consulting firms, we do that all the time, but you know what, go get the find your why book and find an internal champion. I know Michelle Spher came alive and did that work in her organization. There are ways that you can find an internal champion to start to do this work. It’s not rocket science. It’s just whether you have the bandwidth or capacity.

That’s the first thing, I think that by itself goes a long way in calming people. It’s calm in the midst of the storm. That’s the first re-humanizing principle that we talk about that anybody can start to dip their toe that water and move that forward where ever you are, whether you have it and just need to nurture it or you are just starting out.

The second principle piggybacks off of Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety. We have to create fearless environments. I think it’s a misnomer that thriving in human workplaces are all rainbows and unicorns. That’s not realistic. It would be nice but we’re dealing with [indecipherable - 0:12:03.3] sparkles, don’t get me wrong, but we’re dealing with human beings. If you look at the thriving human workplaces, yes they have struggle, yes they are real, yes they have difficult conversations, yes they embrace radical candor, but they create a safe environment for people to do that. If we don’t make it safe for people to show up fully human, to take off their masks and armor, to admit that they are struggling with what the VUCA world is throwing at them, we are in a whole host of trouble. The nice thing about all the research on psychological safety, and it piggybacks on all the research on workplace culture, is that it resides at the local team level.

I think that we think about culture is this huge organizational thing but it is built team by team. You can start one team at a time. This is a huge eye-opener for me and one of the things that we talk about in our new book is that even if you think about like conscious capitalism talks about CEOs support, and [indecipherable - 0:13:00.0] talks about CEO support and it’s not that it’s not helpful, but what has been hugely eye-opening for me the last few years is that it’s not a deal breaker. You can actually transform culture at the local level, kind of like grassroots organizing. It sometimes sticks better because there’s natural momentum versus something that is being pushed out or a top-down approach. If you want to look at where do organizations start, I always say, do this; pick a team that is doing pretty good like your champion team, and see if you can enhance them or look at what are they doing, and pick a team that is struggling. Just pilot something and look at how you help create more psychologically safe work teams. There is a lot that goes into that, but when you do that, you can start to then have a ripple effect and it doesn’t seem so overwhelming.

We’ve got to have that psychologically safe space where people can do the work they need to do to transform as human beings to thrive in this messy world.

Mari Ryan: I see this all the time with clients that I’m working with where they have micro-cultures. Whether it’s different locations led by strong general manager, you see the difference as you go and see those micro-cultures within an organization.

Rosie Ward: Hugely. That gets us into the third re-humanizing principle, which is what we call “wade in the messy middle.” I think that in our fast-paced disruptive world, we want a magic wand, we want a magic bullet, we want shortcuts, and enter trying to incentivize behavior change and all that stuff we know doesn’t work. I think what we need to fundamentally realize is that there is a lot of great work out there – for example, from Bob Keegan and others who pioneer adult development theories and looking at the different cognitive stages we’re at – and then a lot of what we’ve been focused on is behavior and what we really need to focus on is that underlying cognitive development level and mindset, and we need to help people upgrade or upshift to be able to navigate the VUCA world so we can stop some of the swirl. It’s reconciling human developmental stage and what the world is demanding of us and there’s a gap. Instead of trying to focus on behavior changes, how do we help people cross that gap, cross that threshold and level up so that this swirl isn’t so chaotic.

Mari Ryan: Overwhelming, yeah.

Rosie Ward: Yes, so wade in the messy middle is recognizing that there are no shortcuts and there is not a fast-forward button. The only way to get better at something is to go through it. That means it’s going to be uncomfortable at times, it means it’s going to be messy, it’s not going to be perfect, it’s going to feel, bleh, but when we do the work and go through it – yeah, that’s a technical term.

Mari Ryan: I know.

Rosie Ward: When we do the work and go through it, it’s profoundly impactful, and that’s what’s sustainable. When we talk about wade in the messy middle, it’s looking at how are you supporting people to be more self-aware, first and foremost, to recognize their inner narratives that serve them well, and also recognize when their inner narrative is keeping them small, keeping them from having the impact they want to have, and doing that difficult work to upgrade that inner narrative, upgrade the … Bob Anderson and Bill Adams from Mastering Leadership call it “our inner operating system” and they talk about upgrading it. Like if we were trying to run elaborate graphics software program or podcast program on a computer still running DOS operating system, it’s not going to work so well. Or, if you try and install an app on a flip phone, it wouldn’t work. So often we are trying to implement programs whether it’s a leadership development program or resiliency or mental wellbeing or physical wellbeing, or you name it, on an operating system that can’t support it because that operating system is in a downshift of self-protective mode.

They’ve done some really great work looking at how do we upgrade that inner operating system and what they say is that inner game of ourselves, that inner game of leadership runs the outer game, and we spend all our time in the outer game and we have to tend to the inner game. They both matter, but we have to tend to the inner game and then hone the outer game.

From an organization standpoint, I think it’s looking at your people development strategy and do only people who are considered “high potentials” or “next geners” or the C-suiter, whoever gets access to development, or does everybody have access to development. As you develop more of that outer game skill base, or is your development focused on that inner game, self-awareness? How can you embed some of that and look thoughtfully and intentionally at your people development strategy, not just for what you have today, but what’s going to get you to where you want to be five years from now.

That’s all in that wade in the messy middle principle that people can start doing that I think will fundamentally help people thrive and be future-ready.

The fourth principle is show up as a leader. We look at leadership – there’s a lot of great definitions of leadership out there that we used to use and borrow from for many years and then we finally just put it together and came up with our own definition that synthesizes the people who have inspired us. We say that first and foremost leadership is maximizing our positive impact on the world by becoming our best, fully authentic selves and then inspiring those around us to break past barriers and step into their greatness.

So, there’s a lot in that, but if you think about that it’s a combination of self and others, and it’s about what do we need to tend to be the best version of our self, be authentically human, be armor-free, learn and grow, stretch ourselves, etc., and then how do we call others around us to do the same. We fundamentally believe that leadership is not a title or role, it’s a behavior. I think everybody knows somebody who has the title or the role, the power, the authority, the responsibility, and they are no way a leader, and we know people who don’t have that and they are absolutely a leader.

I love the way Bob Chapman and Barry-Wehmiller look at this, that leaders are everywhere. Find them. I say leaders are everywhere, develop them and support them. Everybody has the opportunity, not just to show up as a leader at work, but in their life. Are you making a positive impact in your community? In your family? Your friends?

Showing up as a leader is helping people recognize that and then help them move past that self-limiting dialogue, which can’t have done, by the way, if they haven’t waded in the messy middle, and they can’t do that if they don’t have a fearless environment. So they kind of build on each other.

I think about conversations I’ve had with people whether they are in the wellness industry or HR, and I hear all the time, yeah but Rosie, you have a PhD in organizational management. I’m just a wellness person. Or, I’m just the HR person. Or, I don’t have access to the C suite I’m just a “fill in the blank.” I always say first, we need to remove the “just” from our language, you’re not just anybody. You’re a person who is amazing. The second is really looking at it’s all about just looking at how can I make a positive impact, how can I make a ripple. If I can influence one person or one team or group of people and start growing from there that’s being a leader. I think we undercut ourselves, we discount ourselves, and that doesn’t serve anybody.

Mari Ryan: What I really love about your definition is that it applies to everyone in the organization, not just the senior people in the organization.

Rosie Ward: Yes, and I would even suggest that when you look at the research of the flattening of the organizations and the more mobile network of teams, and how organizations are re-organizing from that traditional hierarchical org structure, to this we’ve got to be fluid, I know we have this project, we need to reorganize around that and then we reorganize. When you look at what is happening even in that space, we need everybody to show up as a leader. You need everybody to be able to take initiative to be able to be forward-thinking, to be able to know how to have a positive impact, to be able to have those interpersonal skills. Yes, it’s critical that we can’t just reserve it for the C suite.

Mari Ryan: Exactly. That’s great.

Rosie Ward: That gets us into the fifth re-humanizing principle, which we say is find your tribe. That’s not about go find people who are like you because it makes you safe and secure. It’s about building relationships. We’ve always said that building a thriving culture, building a thriving community, building a thriving team, is not a solo journey. No one person … We don’t do it in a bubble, we are neuro-biologically hardwired for connection. So, what are we doing to foster authentic connections with people, grow the conversation, look at who else you want to partner with, and looking at too, how do you seek out people, intentionally seek out people who are different from you. Think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and try to understand and learn because we all have our own biases. So find your tribe is really about building community and it’s about growing community, and recognizing that the stronger our communities get, then the more impact we can have.

Those of the five principles that we’ve learned anyone can use and it doesn’t matter if it’s work or home. There are woven throughout the book as we tell stories and look at other things, but really how are people doing that. It’s simple, but it’s complex at the same time.

Mari Ryan: I get it, I get it. It is both. I love the last point of connection and community are two core elements of the framework that many of us use for defining well-being. So those are essential pieces.

Rosie, if our audience wants to learn more about you and the work you are doing, and to find out more about your book, where can they find you?

Rosie Ward: The first place I would say is our website, We have the book on there, you can pre-read the introduction, and order it from there. We’ve got all kinds of free white papers and e-books and recorded webinars and resources for people that might be helpful. Then, I just relaunched website, also has more personal inspiration that kind of show up as a leader, where if people are looking to be inspired and step out of their self-limiting barriers, the drrosieward site is useful for that, and salveopartners will be more applicable for worksites.

Mari Ryan: Wonderful. Thank you so much for being here today to share the information about your new book, which I’m very excited to read, and as always, for all the contributions that you are making to create thriving workplaces and communities.

Rosie Ward: Thank you for having me, and thanks for all the work you do too, Mari.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, workplace culture, wellness, employee experience, employee wellness, worksite well-being, employee well-being, employee enagement

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.