Beyond the Intellect — Communicating Core Values to Support Worker Wellbeing

Reading Time: 7 minutes

(Presentation transcript)

Robin Nicholas

Robin Nicholas Communications, USA

Originally presented: Wellbeing at Work, The National Research Center for Work Environment, International Conference. Copenhagen, Denmark. 2014.

Summary: When we communicate at work and throughout our lives, we are at our best when we address the entire person. This whole-person approach is essential for our wellbeing. However, traditional work environments often emphasize the intellect as the sole means for communicating regulations, practices, and policies to promote efficiency and productivity. If left unchecked, this practice can evolve into rigid hierarchies and structures, promoting environments of efficiency-at-all-costs and just-do-what-I-tell-you. In contrast, wellbeing and the communication that supports it reaches the entire person by communicating core human values, including family, community, dignity, and respect. When we acknowledge and communicate these values, we create a human experience where everyone can succeed.

Keywords: Core values, Wellbeing, Management, Culture


All of us are human. We all value life and the quality of life. Martin Buber [1] described this value well when he said that as human beings, our greatest gift to each other is to make life possible for each other. We have the potential to make life possible for the entire person, not only their physical survival, but also their quality of life and its many dimensions.

How we live and how we work

At work, we are at our best when how we work reflects how we live. Martin Luther King [2] observed that a complete life is lived in three dimensions — length, breadth, and height. The length is our individual self — our self-respect, dignity, and personal excellence. The breadth is how we care for others, our family, community, and relationships. The height is our being part of something greater than ourselves. Federico Fellini [3] described this same dynamic, saying that to live fully, “You have to live spherically — in many directions.” In other words, we must live and work as a complete person. This is the essence and gift of worker wellbeing, the flourishing of each worker as an entire person at work and throughout life. [4]

How we communicate

When we communicate, we communicate to the entire person, in many directions at once — through our emotions, values, and intellect. Simply, we communicate through our head and our heart. Traditionally, communication at work has focused solely on the intellect through programs, directives, regulations, work practices, etc. But each of us brings more of ourselves to our work than our intellect; we bring our values and feelings, our community and culture. In other words, each of us brings our entire self to work. When we reach beyond our intellect, to our core values and culture, we find the true realm of the workplace that supports each person’s wellbeing.

The potential gift of work

So why do we work? First and foremost, work must provide the means to food, shelter, health, and the fulfilling of responsibilities. But once these essential requirements are met, work has the potential to serve other human needs. Work is not who we are, but in its most ideal setting, work can provide an opportunity to express and experience who we are and who we can become. Indeed, work is one way that we bring ourselves to the world. We express who we are through our core values, identity, relationships, and culture. We experience who we are through our dignity, self-respect, and personal excellence. We experience who we are when we could contribute our skills, knowledge, and creativity, when we are heard, and when we reach out to others by building relationships at work. Work allows us the chance to experience the greatest part of ourselves by participating in something greater than ourselves.

Dignity — A core value of work

Frank Rose, drawing upon the work of Philip Tetlock and others, defines core values as, “Moral imperatives that we are unwilling to compromise,” This can include family, community, respect, and dignity. As a core value, the role of dignity at work is crucial. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights [6] recognizes, “…the inherent dignity…of all members of the human family…” Martin Luther King [7] noted, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” Similarly, the International Labour Organization [8] promotes and defines Decent Work as, “Productive work for men and women in conditions of freedom, equality, security and human dignity.” Each of these examples recognizes dignity as essential for a positive and productive life. Because dignity reflects the entire person, it is less about an intellectual concept, and more about a personal and shared experience. We experience and share dignity through other core values such as self-respect, trust, justice, relationships, being heard, contributing, and fulfilling responsibilities. It is interesting that we often become aware of dignity when it is absent. This is because the opposite of dignity is humiliation. Indeed, humiliation is an injury. This raises two questions: Is a workplace without humiliation a safer workplace? Is a workplace with dignity a safer workplace?


Traditionally, when we approach safety at work, we approach it through our intellect, through safety programs, practices, etc. We do this in the name of efficiency; work efficiency becomes our ultimate means to achieving profit, product quality, and safety. The rationale behind this emphasis on efficiency seems reasonable. For example, when we are creating a new company or beginning new work, we first need for it become established and sustainable. Thus, we focus first on efficiency and profit. After the company or work essentials are established, we can then turn our focus to greater worker safety, and then we feel free to expand safety to include worker wellbeing.

Efficiency has always been part of work, but its emphasis took a giant leap forward in the early 1900’s through the work of Frederick Taylor [9] and his concept of Scientific Management or Taylorism. His approach was to break down every process in the workplace through analysis, logic, empiricism, efficiency, elimination of waste, standardization, and mass production. Workers played a mixed role in Taylor’s way of thinking, but ultimately, they were not trusted to know what to do. Though Taylorism is no longer promoted as an official business model, the key emphasis on efficiency remains.


Efficiency itself provides an important and crucial dynamic for work. However, when it becomes the sole driver in the workplace, it risks evolving into efficiency-at-all-costs. The Whitehall II Study [10] provides great insight into the consequences of when efficiency-at-all-costs generates strict, top-down hierarchy. The study revealed that stress for people at the top of the hierarchy was much less than stress for those at the bottom of the hierarchy. This greater stress showed up as increased heart disease and mortality, and as low morale, loss of dignity, illness, absenteeism, and presenteeism. The dynamic responsible for this was simple: though a sense of high demand was felt throughout the hierarchy, those at the top experienced a sense of greater control, while those at the bottom experienced no control. Control here is not in terms of absolute control, but rather a sense of having input, making a contribution, and being heard.

An attitude of efficiency-at-all-costs can easily generate a practice of just-do-what-I-tell-you. It is easy to see how this practice could be viewed as efficient: I tell you what to do, and you do it. There is no debate, no gray area. The short-term gains are easier and less complicated to implement. However, this type of efficiency is short-term and ultimately unsustainable. In the end, because people at the bottom of the hierarchy experience no control, no input, and no personal contribution, the long-term costs continue to accumulate: increased stress and illness, and decreased morale and dignity. The ultimate risk is that a workplace that demands just-do-what-I-tell-you creates workers who wait until they are told what to do. Over the long-term this is the complete opposite of efficient. Leaders are left isolated, not hearing about important problems, or not learning about new ideas for improvement.

Wellbeing for the entire person

When we do not limit ourselves, or prioritize ourselves through intellect alone, we are able to experience all of ourselves: our own self-respect and dignity, our care for others, and our investment in something greater than ourselves. We are then able to live and work spherically, as Fellini described so well, so we can expand into the sphere of our wellbeing, the sphere where workers flourish. Marshall McLuhan [11] noted that, “The medium is the message.” At work, we are the message, each of us. How we communicate with each other and treat each other is the message. Ultimately, this means that our work is about our head and our heart. It is about compassion and empathy, understanding and guidance.

How we communicate — Some suggestions

The key dynamic in communicating is to focus on the entire person and thus honor the entire person. It is less about what we want to communicate and more about what the other person needs to hear and wants to hear. Here are some suggestions.

Avoid interruptions during conversations. We send a great message when we ignore a text message or telephone call during a conversation. We show dignity and respect toward that person when they see that in that moment, they are our first priority.

Do not focus solely on giving information. Instead, seek information, insight, and wisdom from the other person. Encourage them to make a contribution, let them know that they are being heard. Being heard does not necessarily mean being agreed with, but it does mean being respected.

Give your full attention. Literally provide face-to-face time. Stop typing that email or looking at that text message, and instead, look at the person you are talking with. Sherry Turkle [12] points out that technology not only does things for us…it does things to us, creating a life of always pausing, a life of starts and stops. Each of us can change this dynamic of constant interruption with a two-minute, face-to-face conversation.

And lastly, give away power whenever you can. The word empower loses its meaning when people are given responsibility without the real power to fulfill that responsibility. Can we truly empower people in a just-do-what-I-tell-you environment? Giving people a greater sense of control and input creates an environment where people can truly contribute.


Core values are not a system, they are not an intellectual doctrine. Instead, core values are an experience, and our intellect is simply one tool among many within our total experience of dignity, compassion, and wellbeing. Communicating with core values creates a safe workplace, an efficient workplace, and a human workplace.


[1] M. Buber and J. Buber-Agassi (Ed.). Martin Buber on psychology and psychotherapy: essays, letters, and dialogue. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1957, 297p.

[2] M.L. King. The three dimensions of a complete life. Speech presented at New Covenant Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, 9 April 1967.

[3] F. Fellini and C. Chandler. I, Fellini. New York: Cooper Square Press. 2001 (1994). 448p.

[4] T. Räsänen and H. Anttonen. Definition of wellbeing at work and the various categories for evaluation of work activities. Towards Better Work and Well-being, Helsinki: Finnish Institute for Occupational Health, 2010.

[5] F. Rose. Don’t mess with my sacred values. New York Times. November 16, 2013.

[6] United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: United Nations, 1949.

[7] M.L. King. Salute to freedom. Speech presented to Local 1199 Sanitation Workers, Memphis, Tennessee, 10 March 1968.

[8] International Labour Organization World Day for Decent Work. ILO Definition of Decent Work. Geneva: International Labour Organization, 2008, 20p.

[9] F.W. Taylor. The principles of scientific management. New York, London: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1911, 144p.

[10] United Kingdom. Council of Civil Service Unions/Cabinet Office. J. Ferrie (ed.), Work, stress, and health: the Whitehall II study. London: Public and Commercial Services Union, 2004, 28p.

[11] M. McLuhan. Understanding media: the extensions of man. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1964 (1994), 389p.

[12] S. Turkle. The documented life. New York Times, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 Robin M. Nicholas