Limits To Growth: When Pushing Harder Doesn’t Do The Job

When Facing Resistance Don’t Push Harder, Remove The Limiting Factors



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With Growth Comes Resistance

There are limits to growth. We see this in health, relationships, work performance or business. Product sales stagnate after flying high. Teams or individuals improve until they plateau. The changes in your diet help reduce weight until outcomes flatten. Plants grow until the pot is too small.

When facing resistance we tend to push harder. This is an understandable response since initial efforts worked out so well. We promote our products, even more, spend more time learning, prescribe more time for training, we monitor our eating habits even more diligently. However, this doesn’t work all too often. As Einstein said:

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

For Peter Senge, author of the 5th Discipline – The Art & Practice Of The Learning Organization, this is a common pattern you can see across many fields. In systems thinking these patterns are called archetypes. With systems thinking we have a discipline providing tools to see the big picture and the interrelationships between what might, at first, seem to be completely unrelated. Archetypes are the basic building blocks allowing to understand system dynamics. You can observe them in very different fields, from biology to economics, from management to psychology. Senge describes the discussed effect as the “limits to growth” archetype:

“In the early stages when you can see improvement, you want to do more of the same – after all, it’s working so well. When the rate of improvement slows down, you want to compensate by striving even harder. Unfortunately, the more vigorously you push the familiar levers, the more strongly the balancing process resists, and the more futile your efforts become.”

We are creatures of habit, so pushing the familiar levers doesn’t surprise. All we need here is a shift of perspective.

How To Achieve Leverage Instead

According to the “limits to growth” archetype, there are two loops that influence the current situation (see the illustration below). There is the reinforcing loop, including your efforts, that contribute to growths. On the other hand, there is a balancing loop, that counteracts your actions.

Balancing processes are jargon for factors, that limit your efforts. This can be burnt-out production capabilities explaining why sales stagnate. Further advertising won’t help. It might even worsen the situation. It can be a lack of willingness to engage in further training, because employees don’t see the value or like the way business is done currently. Metaphorically speaking balancing processes are like the plant pot, that doesn’t allow further growth.

Limits To Growth Archetype According To Peter Senge

Limits To Growth Archetype According To Peter Senge

At a certain point, growth stagnates because of these balancing processes. When pushing harder doesn’t work people often give up or lower their goals, but there is another way. To gain leverage, Senge argues, you will have to focus on the balancing factors. The factors that keep you in status quo. To create change then identify limiting factors and change them.

Remove The Limiting Factors

They say the best defense is a good offense. So if you can identify limiting factors early on, eliminate them, so they don’t influence your progress. I have to think of productivity right now. For me, preventable limiting factors are certain distractions I can eliminate with either blocking or working outside my home.

If limiting factors are in place, you can either alter the limiting factor, disconnect results from the slowing action, or disconnect the slowing action from the results.

  • So instead of more promotion, increase the production capabilities. This, in turn, will lead to just in time deliveries and good word of mouth for your product.
  • Instead of forcing yourself to keep track of every bit of your diet ask what limits your progress. Maybe adding some aerobic exercise helps regain momentum.
  • If your relationship got dusty, don’t spend more time with your partner to work it out. Maybe “higher leverage” lies in allowing more private times. That, in turn, recreates some of that “friction”, that attracted you in the first place.
  • Instead of forcing yourself to work on your big project ask what limits your drive. Maybe you’re driving with your handbrake on. Maybe fear blocks the way to your goals. Try fear setting to loosen the handbrake and gain velocity.
  • Instead of inflating your argument and repeating it over and over, ask why your partner disagrees. Maybe the counter-argument can be resolved.
  • If every decision made in your organization waits for your approval, you are the bottleneck. Disconnect at least a part of the decisions from your approval. Delegate.
  • Feel free to add to this list in the comments.

The directive here is simple: Don’t push growth, remove the limiting factors, whenever possible.

Complement this article with Shifting the Burden – Why Quick Fixes Make Things Worse, and the 5th Discipline – The Art & Practice Of The Learning Organization by Peter Senge.

Suggested Reading:

On The Power Of Labels, And Why We Must Choose Them Carefully

There Is No Problem Until We Say It Is



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The Double Character Of Disease

With diseases, we can speak of a double character. First, there is a biological deviation. Then your doc labels that deviation as an illness. It’s a two-step process.

I believe, Eliot Freidson was first to make this distinction. He is considered to be the founder of sociology in medicine. According to Freidson illness is more than a biological or psychological deviation. Social and cultural components, too, have to be considered. Deviations become an illness only if we label them as such. Illness is tied to judgment.

What’s more, human beings like to label. Normal. Unnormal. Good. Bad. Nice. Not so nice. Thumbs up. Thumbs down. That way people judge a lot of factors.

To clarify cultural components, here are a few examples.

Look at overweight. It has been a sign of wealth and health for a long time. Only recently did that change in the western world. There are cultures that still see overweight as something positive.

For the Romans, in the late ancient times, it was normal to eat, vomit, eat, vomit, eat. Today we see that differently.

Or to paraphrase Christoph Klotter, a German health psychologist: If we accept that young women vomit after their meals to manage weight there is no bulimia. There is no problem. Only the label creates a need for treatment of the deviation.

Don’t Tie The Judgement To Your Observations

So we draw boundaries and this can have a whole string of consequences.

With overweight not only did diagnostic criteria change but all the sudden a big part of the population had to worry about their health. Many of you might agree. In our minds, overweight equals sick equals incapable.

But the pursuit of thinness, for many, might have caused the problems to start. For example, because unguided dietary changes are associated with eating disorders or because dieters show rigid eating behaviors. The latter compares to the all or nothing principle. Especially under stress dieters tend to give in and ignore their plans. What’s been a “no go”, then is the first choice.

Overweight is often associated with low performance and seen as a burden to the society. If we look at how likely it is for someone overweight to die prematurely in comparison with normal weight people the numbers surprised me initially. With overweight or even obesity risk rises. However, fitness is more important than fatness – like Ann Blair Kennedy said it. An obese, but fit, person – compared to normal weight fit people – has a nearly identical risk of premature death. Another study concludes, that there is even an inverse association between weight and mortality.

I believe we tend to jump from observation to judgment, without realizing what exactly we’re judging. If from a medical perspective the curvy young lady doesn’t have a reason to worry about her body weight, but social pressure makes her worry, the wrong reasons are in place.

Labels And Their Consequences

In the context of depression, Tim Ferriss argues that the labels we choose involve the risk of not offering a solution:

“Don’t use the term “depression,” which is loaded with negative and clinical connotations, without considering other labels that might be more appropriate. “Loneliness” or “isolation” are two common substitutes which are not just more precise but more actionable (the term “depression” doesn’t suggest a solution).”

From this perspective, a label like depression – and for obesity or overweight and others it is similar – this can have wide-ranging consequences like stigmatization. Patrick W. Corrigan argues that “stereotypes may exacerbate notions that people with mental illness do not recover”. Nobody wants to be in such a trap.

According to Corrigan society endorses stigmatization. This can cause a downward spiral, that makes people buy into a stereotype. People might self-stigmatize.

Human beings are cultural and social beings. Part of culture is shared rules. These rules help us orient. But we also have to be sure these rules are credible and the labels we choose are actionable.

Problems Are What We Define As Such

I want to take this a step further. I’d argue, the same two-step process applies all the little crises and problems we face day by day.

To explain this, I’ll have to digress a little. Constructivism.

Constructivism is a theory of cognition with a big influence on coaching and management training. A core thesis is, that we all construct our own realities. Perception is viewed as an active process, that’s influenced by the person’s experience and current emotional state.

Just think about how two people can disagree about certain colors. In that sense, different people can interpret the same situation very differently. Thus, there is no objective truth. There may be a shared point of view, but it is not necessarily the one point of view.

Problems, too, are constructed. A problem is what we define as such. Maybe we expected things to turn out differently. Maybe based on past numbers the manager expected that sales would be at a certain level.

This often isn’t conscious as American psychologist George A. Kelly would argue. We’re not necessarily aware of the ways of our perception. We create personal constructs:

The premise of Kelly’s theory was straightforward, yet radical. Kelly contended that people never know the world directly, but only via a set of “personal constructs” that they themselves create.

Compare this idea to the map of a territory and the territory itself. How do we know, that the map we use shows the territory as it is?

Psychologists for a long time know, that the beliefs we have about situations have consequences – emotional, behavioral or even physiological. Dr. Albert Ellis is a prominent figure in this field. He argues that reassessing our beliefs about situations has great potential to eliminate stress or even enhance performance.

What we tend to do with problems is identify causes or the guilty ones and blame or fight them.

What if we had to reassess our “diagnostic criteria” first? What kind of deviation are we judging? And how appropriate is the label we choose?

Suggested Reading:

How to Make a Healthy Habit

The Psychology of Habit Formation



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I believe we tend to shy away from changing behavior. Exercising more, getting fit, or eating better are often perceived as huge tasks. But they don’t have to if you follow a few simple principles, and take an incremental approach. The crux comes down to, what Franz Kafka would have put like this:

“Paths are made by walking.”

In the beginning, every path compares to a narrow trail. Vegetation might be in the way, and progress is slow and effortful. But by walking the path often, it becomes more solid. What’s been effortful in the beginning becomes easy with time and repetition.

Good Advice, Bad Advice

Health-related advice mostly relates to the what and why. For example, your doctor recommends reducing weight, because of certain risks. Of course, it’s a good thing to have sound reasons. And the program your doc recommends might be the best there is. But what and why don’t necessarily help with the question of how to make a new habit stick. It doesn’t help you “walk the talk”. This article is a step to close that gap.

Benjamin Gardner and colleagues argue that even health professionals shy away from giving advice on modifying behavior. Even they see behavior change as time-consuming and difficult for people to implement. That’s sad because health professionals could be making more with the time they have with their clients.

The usual advice of what and why is designed to deliberate. Psychologically this triggers what Daniel Kahneman calls “System 2”. This is a slow, deliberate cognitive system.

Relying on “System 2” we need us to pay attention and willpower. That’s why this kind of advice fails. We need our attention to do our daily work. Attention is a limited resource, or as some might say our mental hitpoints are limited. That’s why Steve Jobs, for example, kept wearing the same outfits day in day out. He didn’t want to decide on minor things. He wanted to reserve his mental hitpoints.

We need to utilize what Kahneman calls “System 1”.  This is our autopilot. He’s fast. We can give him new tasks. Of course, there is a transition. But then he can take care of tasks and we keep our mental hitpoints.

All we need to do is, take care of the autopilot for a while for him to learn the new task properly.

How Habits Are Formed

Benjamin Gardner proposes simple advice on how to create this change:

“We propose that simple advice on how to make healthy actions into habits — externally-triggered automatic responses to frequently encountered contexts — offers a useful option in the behaviour change toolkit. Advice for creating habits is easy for clinicians to deliver and easy for patients to implement: repeat a chosen behaviour in the same context, until it becomes automatic and effortless.”

Automatic and effortless. Isn’t that what we want? We get there by letting external cues trigger our routines.

Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power Of Habit – Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change, calls this the habit loop:

“This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.”

Trigger, routine, reward. Like that, the smell of coffee in the mornings makes me get myself a cup of coffee, have a sip and enjoy the caffeine rush.

The Habit Loop According To Charles Duhigg

Repeatedly, psychological research has shown that the mere repetition of an action in the same context leads to habit formation (see this, and this for example). Through associative learning, the context then triggers the behavior. That’s why the Pavlovian dog still salivated when sounding a bell, though there was no food. Gardner explains:

“Once initiation of the action is ‘transferred’ to external cues, dependence on conscious attention or motivational processes is reduced. Therefore habits are likely to persist even after conscious motivation or interest dissipates. Habits are also cognitively efficient, because the automation of common actions frees mental resources for other tasks.”

That’s the beauty of this approach. Behavior becomes “second nature” and we have our minds free to deal with new business.

I have a habit of meditating on the bus commute. Whenever I meet someone or something interferes it feels quite strange not to meditate. With time the environment triggers you to do your habit. What initially was effortful becomes effortless and easy to maintain, even makes you uncomfortable when you can’t do your routine.

Transition: From Effort to Effortless

Unrealistic expectations can lead to giving up. Janet Polivy calls these unrealistic expectations false hope. We might be wrong about the ease, speed, likely degree of change, and presumed benefits of changing.

I’m saying this because a 21-day myth goes around. Gardner and colleagues counter that myth:

“Some may have heard that habits take 21 days to form. This myth appears to have originated from anecdotal evidence of patients who had received plastic surgery treatment and typically adjusted psychologically to their new appearance within 21 days. More relevant research found that automaticity plateaued on average around 66 days after the first daily performance.”

Based on daily repetition, of course, a 10-week rule is more realistic. Keeping up the motivation for 2-3 months can be an attractive option. Then the autopilot will take over. These numbers result from a study by  Phillipa Lally and colleagues. In absolute terms, habit formation appeared between 18 and 254 days. Repetition is the most important factor if you want your autopilot to take over quickly. Missing one opportunity to do your new habit will not affect the process. Just get back on track.

Strategies, That Get You to “Effortless”

The following strategies help with habit formation. Be aware that this is a learning process. According to Gardner one passes the phases of initiation and the learning phase on the way to a steady habit. The ideas below will help with both: getting started, and learning to deal with obstacles along the way.

1. Decide When, Where, and How

To start things decide when, where, and how. For example, if you want an exercise habit, define when and where you will exercise: “Immediately after waking on Mondays, I will go for a run for half an hour”. A stable cue is important because we want our minds to be free, and let the cue do the reminding. This kind of if-then plan helps automate your will.

The idea comes from the German psychologist Peter M. Gollwitzer. According to Gollwitzer defining when, where, and how helps “translate” plans into action. One might say, we create a “memory of the future”. As soon as we face the anticipated situation – waking up – we remember our goal and how we want to get it done. It can help to write these if-then plans down.

How refers to the kind of exercise, or maybe how you make the new habit more fun. I like to bundle new habits with “vices” of mine, like bundling writing with coffee and exercise with favorite music or audiobooks. Katy Milkman calls this temptation bundling. In my experience, this can help with starting a habit.

2. Small Changes

Combine habit formation with the small changes approach. Don’t try to run seven times a week. Run once a week, or if you have to, make it only one mile. Or half a mile. That way the bar is so low that you don’t have to think about it. You just do it. This helps create momentum, allows you to keep going, and make it a habit. You can grow skills, and raise the bar later on. Focus on the consistency first.

In terms of small changes Gardner and colleagues add the following:

“A sedentary person, for example, would be more appropriately advised to walk one or two stops more before getting on the bus than to walk the entire route — at least for their first habit goal. Small changes can benefit health: slight adjustments to dietary intake can aid long-term weight management, and small amounts of light physical activity are more beneficial than none. Moreover, simpler actions become habitual more quickly. Additionally, behaviour change achievements, however small, can increase self-efficacy, which can in turn stimulate pursuit of further changes.”

Self-efficacy is a fancy term for self-confidence in psychology. Can I do this? And, can I produce the wanted results doing so? Starting small therefore boosts self-confidence, and creates momentum to aim at and take on higher goals.

3. Variation Is The Enemy

They say variety is the spice of life, but in terms of modifying behavior, it’s a burden. Variation simply is incompatible with building a habit. Gardner argues:

“Variation may stave off boredom, but is effortful and depends on maintaining motivation, and is incompatible with development of automaticity.”

I believe it’s fair to say, that those who consistently do the same things over and over will have visible results. Those who stay on the same exercise program will more likely have huge results, than those who switch week by week.

Therefore the idea remains: repeat a single specific action in a consistent context.

Of course, you can spice things up with a cheat day when dieting. Or you can add a different type of exercise on the weekends to feed your need for variety. But in general, results depend on routine.

4. Pick Goals Yourself

Choose your goal yourself. Also, choose the way you want to get there yourself. Chances are you will have an intrinsic value when you do that. You’re more likely to persist. Research also has shown that self-chosen habits, compared externally induced, are easier targets. Therefore, have it your way.

5. Replace Bad Habits

Creating a routine of nothing doesn’t work. If you want to get rid of a bad habit replace it. For example, instead of eliminating coffee in the afternoons, replace it with tea.

Charles Duhigg on this point:

“The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.”

“Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”

Breaking a routine is effortful. Why not use the existing habit loop, and make the best of it?

6. Self-Monitor

Self-monitor, for example, with a simple tick-sheet or an app like That way you can see progress and also get direct feedback.

Though this can be “painful”, because we tend to be hard on ourselves when things don’t work out, we can ask why the habit didn’t work. That way we create a learning process.

It’s possible, but unlikely to have the perfect streak at one go. Often we fall off the wagon because something unexpected happened. The second time, we know the situation and can prepare. Here, too, we can decide when, where, and how to deal with obstacles.

7. Deal With Different Contexts One-By-One

Let’s look at diet for example. There are so many contexts: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all the little snacks. Taking them on at once would be a huge project. Why not split?

There’s definitely more than one habit loop if we look at diet. Why not start with breakfast only, or lunch – create a proper habit and then move on?

Moreover, we face (social) pressure in certain situations. Don’t start here. Start with safe situations, when you can likely see how things turn out. Build solid routines here, and later move to more difficult situations.


Habit formation advice is briefly delivered: repeat a chosen behavior in the same context until it becomes automatic and effortless. Also, this is easy to implement. Provided your “what and why” are sound these ideas will help you implement your new habit, with real potential for long-term impact.

Complement this article with The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change by Charles Duhigg, or Peter M. Gollwitzer’s Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects Of Simple Plans.

Suggested Reading:

The Smart Way To Approach Fitness: 4 Principles

How To Leverage The Science Of Motivation To Make Exercise Fun And Easy


Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

“Push Or Pull”

Exercise for many is just another to do we have to fit into our schedules. Often we dread exercise because we’ve not found a way to make it fun and less of a to do. We have to keep “pushing” and rely on our willpower. Intellectually we know exercise is good for us, but all too often this isn’t enough. Tony Robbins describes that dilemma like this:

Push will wear you out. When you’re pushing to do something, you only got so much willpower. But when you’re pulled, when there’s something larger than yourself that you’re here to serve and that you believe you’re made for, that brings energy.”

This article is about principles that allow you to create that “pull”.

Quick Guide To “Drive”

We can make out external factors that motivate us, like bonuses or rewards, and there are internal factors (extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation). According to Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, this internal drive is fueled by three components – autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Each of these can be leveraged to create this “pull” I talked about above.

Set Your Own Goals

To begin, ask yourself for what reason you want to exercise and get fit. This makes a big difference. Do you want to satisfy some external demands or do you want to get fit because you derive an internal value, like staying healthy and being there for your family or partner? Your staying power will depend on your goals. According to Daniel H. Pink, we must focus on our needs, and not let them be undermined by some trainer and his standard exercise plan, or even external judgment:

“Don’t accept some standardized, cookie-cutter exercise plan. Create one that’s tailored to your needs and fitness level. (You can work with a professional on this, but you make the final calls.) Equally important, set the right kinds of goals. Ample research in behavioral science shows that people who seek to lose weight for extrinsic reasons—to slim down for a wedding or to look better at a class reunion—often reach their goals. And then they gain the weight back as soon as the target event ends. Meanwhile, people who pursue more intrinsic goals—to get fit in order to feel good or to stay healthy for their family—make slower progress at first, but achieve significantly better results in the long term.

I think the example Pink gives is familiar to many of us. It’s tempting to lose weight for extrinsic reasons. Of course, we want to look good, but it’s simply not a long-term solution. Your purpose becomes more powerful and enduring when its source moves from external to internal, negative to positive, and self to others.

Autonomy is a central human need. Even health professional miss this point. I’ve failed at this point several times. The assumption that we know what’s best for a client and prescribing it to them totally disregards the client’s autonomy. This is often referred to as the therapist’s dilemma. Client’s feel disregarded, and don’t implement what’s suggested. I believe we need a shift of mind, from an expert to a reflection partner with “knowledge of the territory”. Health professionals then can help navigate, but you will have to choose yourself.

That being said, choose yourself.

Find A Form Of Fitness You Enjoy

How can you turn your workout into play? Results may come another day, therefore having fun here and now is important. If you derive some internal value from your kind of exercise you are more likely to keep trying. It seems when joining a gym everybody has to go through the same program as if we were robots. But we’re not. We have different preferences, and it’s up to you to do what you like.

Though I feel like David among a many Goliaths in the gym I prefer simple barbell training. When the Goliaths occupy the barbell racks I’m lost. When the racks are free on the other hand there are no detours. I simply love the more direct feedback you get with this kind of resistance training.

That’s to say avoid the standards if you don’t like them. There are so many ways to exercise. Dancing? Running? Swimming? Crossfit? Or join an amateur basketball league? I loved ice hockey when I was a kid. Whatever you decide to do if you enjoy what you do you’re more likely to have fun and make it a habit. Also, this sets you up for improvement.

Keep Mastery In Mind

Mastery is a big word. I like the way George Leonard, author of Mastery: The Keys To Success And Long-Term Fulfillment, describes it:

“It resists definition yet can be instantly recognized. It comes in many varieties, yet follows certain unchanging laws. It brings rich rewards, yet is not really a goal or a destination but rather a process, a journey. We call this journey mastery, and tend to assume that it requires a special ticket available only to those born with exceptional abilities. But mastery isn’t reserved for the supertalented or even for those who are fortunate enough to have gotten an early start. It’s available to anyone who is willing to get on the path and stay on it – regardless of age, sex, or previous experience.”

Get on the path and stay on it. If you follow the principle above you will likely have chosen a good path to improve in. Putting in the work (and play) each week will provide a great opportunity to become more, and more proficient. Daniel H. Pink adds:

Getting better at something provides a great source of renewable energy. So pick an activity in which you can improve over time. By continually increasing the difficulty of what you take on—think Goldilocks—and setting more audacious challenges for yourself as time passes, you can renew that energy and stay motivated.

The Goldilocks principle is important. Pick just the right amount. Deliberate practice is needed. Regular practice might include mindless repetition. However, mastery demands attention – and a specific goal. That might be running the kilometer in under five minutes instead of six.

Improving part of your game can also be insurance for being well if something else in your life isn’t in the “green zone”.

Reward Yourself The Right Way

Rewards are tricky. Research shows that “excessive rewards can, in some cases, result in a decline in performance”. Pink suggests:

If you’re really struggling, consider a quick experiment with Stickk (, a website in which you publicly commit to a goal and must hand over money—to a friend, a charity, or an “anti-charity”—if you fail to reach it. But in general, don’t bribe yourself with “if-then” rewards—like “If I exercise four times this week, then I’ll buy myself a new shirt.” They can backfire. But the occasional “now that” reward? Not a problem. So if you’ve swum the distance you hoped to this week, there’s no harm in treating yourself to a massage afterward. It won’t hurt. And it might feel good.

Rewards can extinguish your internal drive. Therefore avoid the regular if-then rewards, like you might know them from work. Bonuses might work for routine tasks, but how routine will your exercise be? Your call.


A part of Daniel H. Pink’s arguments is based on research by the psychologists Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci. I want to stress one of the points they make, that’s not sufficiently covered.

We are “social animals”. Relatedness according to Deci & Ryan is one very important driver of intrinsic motivation. Therefore, the more you can connect your fitness plans with your “social matrix” the easier it will get.

Also, if we ask ourselves why we want to get and stay healthy, or better what for, we often come to somebody important. That may be our partner, children, or even our grandchildren.

Complement this article with the Psychology Of Habit Formation and Daniel H. Pink’s Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us or anything from below.

Suggested Reading:

Forget The Stress, Focus On Commitment

How To Create The Healthy And Productive Work Places We So Desperately Need


Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

Work & Wellbeing

Health has become a guiding theme in modern society. Public interest proves that. So does the increasing interest in the work domain. However, there is a huge gap between the need for health promotion and supply of activities to meet this need – especially for mental health. This risk is avoidable. Premature health issues follow, that affect potential, and therefore work performance.

The stress concept is the norm for most experts that fight health risks in the workplaces. It contributed to our understanding of health and illness. At the same time, though, it mainly focuses on the downside. This view neglects, that work can contribute to personal development. Stress can strain, but it doesn’t have to.

There are many aspects, that influence the experience of stress, like duration, the capacities one brings along or the support of co-workers. Alia J. Crum and colleagues highlight the enhancing nature of stress – yes, there is one.

What’s more, our mindset matters regarding the stress response. If we view stress as harmful it likely is.

If all we do is eradicate time pressure, high workloads and work on our sphere of influence we might miss out on very important things. Maybe we’re not stressed then, but are we fully engaged?

Also, in stress research threats and challenges are often considered the same. Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, disagrees:

“Challenge and threat are not the same thing. People blossom when challenged and wither when threatened.”

Somehow work has gotten a bad reputation. Work equals stress.

This idea is firmly established in our minds. Fellow health-psychologist Kelly McGonigal started to break this bad reputation with her TED-talk. So do Tom Rath and Jim Harter. They highlight the positive effects of work on our wellbeing:

“We spend the majority of our waking hours during the week doing something we consider a career, occupation, vocation, or job. When people first meet, they ask each other, “What do you do?” If your answer to that question is something you find fulfilling and meaningful, you are likely thriving.

Both argue that stress is normal. But if you have a good reason to do what you do, you’re more likely to be well. To paraphrase Kelly McGonigal: chasing meaning is better for your health, than trying to avoid discomfort.

A loss of your job or occupation, on the other hand, can have immense consequences on our psychological wellbeing, our social connectedness, and of course our financial situation. Jennie E. Brand argues:

“A job is more than a source of income. It is a fundamental social role providing a source of identity, self-concept, and social relations.”

Don’t get me wrong. Stress has to be taken seriously, but managing it is not enough to create the healthy and productive workplaces we need.

Who’s In Charge?

Nearly everybody sees the problem of high workload. Sadly, this is often seen as an unavoidable side effect of an increasing living standard and income. The suggested solution? Learn to unwind. Moreover, we should learn to appreciate the new possibilities, like working on emails at home.

This way the employee alone is responsible. However, science is certain, that economy and politics, too, have to bear responsibility. Put simply, the circumstances have to allow productive and healthy behavior. Especially under pressure behavior follows the circumstances. If those with the power to decide neglect this fact, they directly contribute to a loss of productivity and wellbeing.

Rethinking Health

Ill or healthy are attributes mostly characterized by physical deviations. However, the World Health Organization defined health as the triad of physical, psychological and social wellbeing. Interactions between these three factors must be considered for a better understanding of health and illness.

In medicine, and as some argue for your MD, too, health is not worth noting. Health doesn’t need treatment. Therefore it’s of no interest. Health sciences focus on wellbeing, instead. That is not wellbeing, in a hedonic sense, like striving for the good and avoiding the negative.

Look at philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s perspective:

“Health is manifested in a general feeling of personal well-being. It appears mostly when we – in our feeling of personal well-being – are open to new things, are ready to start new business, without considering demands made on us.”

By that definition, we’re not healthy in the absence of illness. We’re healthy when happy to engage in new business, open to new experience, self-forgetful, and just barely notice our efforts.

This view of health resonated deeply with me. We dismiss a view of work as something stressful by definition and open to a new dimension. Dealing with stress is a point we must not forget. But it’s not enough to gain the kind of engagement and commitment we need. For the full picture, we need to consider more.

Thinking about wellbeing we tend to value material wealth and physical health. According to research by Tom Rath and Jim Harter, authors of Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, there is a different outcome:

“Wellbeing is about the combination of our love for what we do each day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our physical health, and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities. Most importantly, it’s about how these five elements interact.”

Physical health and material wealth, therefore, are important, but not necessarily the first priority. More importantly, we need something to look forward to, when waking up. That might be a meaningful occupation. Or it is the people we share a set of values with, a worldview, or we simply feel connected to.

The interest in health increased in part because the GDP alone is a bad measurement of the economic performance of a country. Quality of life, education, health, and wellbeing are additional indicators.

In the workplaces, the interest in health increased because connections between health and productivity are well documented. Work demands keep rising and bear a risk for health and productivity. Moreover, the recruiting, leading and keeping talent will become more difficult.

At the same time, most of our work is done in our heads today. Mental labor shows different demands than physical labor. Hence, the design of work and the way people are led have to change.

It is true that health has many influences. Genetics. Socialization. Education. But there is also the work we do each day and the way we balance it with other parts of our lives. To create workplaces that allow for productivity and wellbeing we have to understand our “operating system”. I believe author Simon Sinek’s argument to be very suitable here: “If you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business”.

The Human Operating System. Human Beings Are Biological, Social, And Cultural Beings

Bernhard Badura, a German sociologist, and colleagues propose three systems that drive and influence us as human beings:

  • We are creatures of nature. We have two biological systems in place. First, we have a reward system, that makes us strive for wellbeing by connecting with other people. Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, authors of Driven – How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, call this the drive to bond. In addition, we have a fear-based system, that makes us avoid or fight threats.
  • We are “social animals”. As social beings, our wellbeing and potential depends on the appreciation and attention of our fellows or colleagues.
  • As cultural beings, we are driven by values. Moreover, socialization, education, and qualification shape our intrinsic motivation. This, I believe, is largely neglected in many workplaces. Still, a rather transactional approach predominates.

Badura and colleagues conclude: our emotional experiences and unconscious processes of daily interactions need more attention. That is because negative emotions like fear reduce performance and commitment. On the other hand joy, pride or solidarity inspire and help deal with highly demanding or burdensome work.

Mental health and wellbeing must become a central target dimension, because of its effects on quality of life, and also on work, social and health behavior. Healthy, we are better because we are more productive and quality-conscious. Executives who disregard these connections damage their companies.

With a focus on wellbeing, we have the “lead domino”, that affects all the other outcomes of work and health we want.

Status Quo In Germany

As a sample, I want to give a number of figures for the status quo in the German economy to illustrate the need for proper health management – health is an executive’s task.

You can skip this, and move on to the next part if you like, though I think the numbers are quite striking.

In Germany, the health insurance funds have spent 54 billion Euro on health promotion. That way they reached 0,27% of the companies and 2,51% of the employees. At the same time, we know little about the effectiveness of those interventions. We’ve got a lot of work to do here.

What Drives Wellbeing?

According to Bernhard Badura intrinsic motivation is a key factor.

This also creates a win-win situation, because employees that derive some internal values from work are more likely to be engaged and committed to staying with an organization.

Daniel H. Pink, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, showed that related to motivation there is a gap between what science knows and what business does. 

We won’t be able to motivate people with “carrots and sticks” anymore. According to Daniel H. Pink, instead of fear and rewards, we need people to be driven by purpose, mastery, and autonomy – and adding to this: a feeling of relatedness, a feeling of belonging. If we exclude routine work, the cultivation of intrinsic motivation will trump the current state of transactional management at any time.

Shared values and “soft” factors like culture, atmosphere, quality of leadership, and cooperation will outrank leadership that focusses on dictating and controlling. According to Bernhard Badura interactions are as presented in the figure below. The factors just mentioned are summarized under social capital.

Companies, therefore, may pay high salaries, have qualified personnel, be well equipped and still get into trouble. When trust and respect fade and our commonalities in thinking, feeling and doing break up, we will face a “sickening wasteland”.

Leadership is supposed to take influence. But it’s crucial how.

Daniel Gilbert gives a good example:

“Sure, you can get results from threats: Tell someone, “If you don’t get this to me by Friday, you’re fired,” and you’ll probably have it by Friday. But you’ll also have an employee who will thereafter do his best to undermine you, who will feel no loyalty to the organization, and who will never do more than he must. It would be much more effective to tell your employee, “I don’t think most people could get this done by Friday. But I have full faith and confidence that you can. And it’s hugely important to the entire team.” Psychologists have studied reward and punishment for a century, and the bottom line is perfectly clear: Reward works better.”

This example may be extreme but in my experience, a lot of management works with fear-based motivation. It feels like we are back in school and have to meet our teacher’s demands. But we’re not, and science gives good reason to leave even performance-based incentives behind.

Edward W. Deming finds even more drastic words on this topic:

“Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers – a price for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars – and on up through the university. On the job, people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by Objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.”

We need a shift of mind, away from hierarchy, order, and control, away from financial incentives and competition, to cultivating intrinsic motivation.

We need cohesion. And the binding material is meaningful work, trust among colleagues, supportive executives and a culture, that allows fairness, progress, shared responsibility, and work-life balance. That way you can find, lead and keep talent. That way stress won’t disappear, but employees are more likely to commit to goals of the organization.

4 Kinds Of Work Demands

Knowledge work, which represents the majority of our workplaces today, demands mental energy for our thinking, energy to handle our emotions as well as energy to work on relationships. Out of this arises a key leadership task: The development and steady communication of a vision and culture, that allow trust and a sense of belonging to evolve.

Not only physical energy is limited. The same is true for mental energy; think of attention span or memory. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, authors of The Power Of Full Engagement, suggest four sources of energy. Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

Other authors like Stephen R. Covey or philosopher Herbert A. Shepard agree with this model. Sources and use of these energies need further research, but we might agree that spiritual and emotional capacities remain untouched in many workplaces.

Spirituality often implies religion, but in the work context, this is about communicating meaning and significance of a task. Meaning can give context and helps to cope with situations and work demands. Viktor Frankl’s frames this idea very precisely:

“He who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how.

This “why” according to Aaron Antonovsky is an important part of a someone’s feeling of coherence. He calls it the sense of coherence: “The extent to which one has a pervasive, enduring though dynamic, feeling of confidence that one’s environment is predictable and that things will work out as well as can reasonably be expected.”

Besides the meaningfulness, leaders have to make sure that goals are transparent and employees have appropriate resources (e.g. time) to do their tasks.

How Do We Spend Our Energy?

Health scientists ask how much energy people are spending to deal with the work itself, and how much is needed to face the demands of work’s organization. Lack of appreciation or conflicts in teams, poor participation or labor conditions lead to fear and mistrust. At this point, people spend too much energy on everything but work. Quality goes down.

A study, that explored police work is a good example of this point. The authors assumed that most energy of police officers would be needed for the actual police work – law and order. In fact, administrative elements of the work were more demanding.  Lack of organization, negative leadership behavior, lack of appreciation or payment, downsizing, deficient equipment, poor communication are causes, to name a few. These are homemade and caused by poor management. Like that, organizations that are unaware of the risk potential hurt their performance and competitiveness.

We Are Wired For Cooperation

Nothing inspires like face to face contact. Cooperation helps to find meaning and is instrumental in dealing with daily demands.

Homo sapiens prevailed because it learned to cooperate. Cooperation, based on shared values and rules made living together stable, if not possible – even, beyond families. That way group identity and solidarity developed and do’s and don’ts were established.

Firm rules are the basis for morale and intrinsic motivation. Bonds with one another and communication are the basis for personal growth and mental health. To stay healthy we need to strike roots in trustful relationships as well as shared thinking, feeling, and doing.

We’re wired for cooperation. This is one of our most precious potentials. At the same time, this is one big vulnerability. Nothing compares to disregard or rejection – only the loss of an important person, occupation, or the loss of important convictions.

Dealing with health means dealing what is important to people. If leaders decide to do so, we can propose a synchronous effect not only on health and wellbeing but also on operating results.

If we want to create the healthy and productive workplaces we so desperately need, not only do we have to eliminate potential risks, but we have to create a solid foundation for cooperation.

Complement this with Daniel H. Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Goleman’s Primal Leadership – Unleashing The Power Of Emotional Intelligence or any of the talk listed below under “selected links”.

Suggested Reading:

Selected Links:


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