fb-pixel Skip to main content
Top Places to Work

The best way to motivate employees? Look out for their well being

Meditation breaks, mindfulness moments, and performance reviews based on the “wheel of life.”

Maureen Hopper has had plenty of job performance reviews over the years, but none like the one she received 18 months ago. John Lawlor, chief operating officer of Maugel Architects in the rural town of Harvard, showed her a piece of paper displaying a “wheel of life.” It was a circle divided into seven colored slices. Each slice bore a label, including “work,” “health,” and “family.”

Instead of focusing on how well Hopper, the firm’s office manager, was keeping supplies stocked and managing the company president’s schedule, Lawlor asked her how she was managing each aspect of her life. She told him she wanted to cut back on activities that left her feeling overextended, help her oldest son prepare for college, eat better, and lose weight.


“It made me realize what things I wanted to change,” says Hopper, 50. “It’s nice to have someone interested in your overall well-being.” Soon Hopper cut back on her volunteer commitments, changed her work schedule to take a Pilates class Friday mornings, and lost 26 pounds — all while keeping her boss updated on her progress.

If you’ve never experienced anything resembling Maugel’s approach to motivating its nearly 30 employees, you’re not alone. Most reviews concentrate on productivity, not postural alignment. But executives at an increasing number of Massachusetts companies say they’re making the well-being of employees, at work and at home, a priority. It’s good for business, they say, and the right thing to do. Indeed, some executives are sounding more like Deepak Chopra than Henry Ford. “It’s the difference between a good company and a great company,” Lawlor says of Maugel’s holistic approach. “We become much more of a mentor and coach to an employee than a boss.”

And performance reviews are just one approach.

Consider PTC, a Needham software company that’s moving to Boston’s Seaport District in January. Kathy Cullen-Cote, PTC’s head of human resources, has persuaded dozens of the firm’s 1,000 employees to take mindfulness training sessions taught on-site by an instructor who comes from the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge. The sessions, which PTC pays for, feature yoga-based breathing techniques to reduce tension. “We all have stress in our lives,” Cullen-Cote says. “We work 40 hours a week. We have families. Some of us have aging parents. It’s important that people take care of themselves.”


One participant in a recent stress-reducing session in a conference room was Jack McAvoy, PTC’s vice president of corporate communications. McAvoy, 61, wore casual business clothes, not Lululemon. But he was game to learn ways to lower stress. He manages a dozen employees in North America, Europe, and Asia, gets hundreds of e-mails a day, and has an elderly father with health problems.

Over the course of eight hours, he and about two dozen colleagues did a little yoga while sitting in chairs, but they focused mostly on mindfulness and breathing exercises. McAvoy says he went into the session feeling skeptical and left believing that a few minutes of focused breathing between meetings could reduce tension and “will certainly help me better manage life.”

Bob Kelleher, a Boston-based employee engagement consultant and author, encourages managers to show empathy for what workers are going through, on and off the job. Kelleher, whose clients include Prudential Financial and The Cheesecake Factory, said employees are more enthusiastic when they feel supervisors take an interest in them. Simple things like asking about a child’s Little League game or a sick relative can be enough to show the employee isn’t just a widget, he says. “It’s actually common sense, but it’s not common practice,” says Kelleher.


Perhaps not surprisingly, companies sometimes disagree about the right way to show they care about employees. Jen Miller, who oversees personnel at Acorio, a Boston-based software consultancy, says it has always been known as a caring company. But managers at the 180-person firm increasingly frown on “too much cheerleading,” which Miller refers to as “ruinous empathy.”

Instead, she says the company practices “radical candor,” which, like ruinous empathy, was coined by author and CEO coach Kim Scott. Radical candor encourages managers to show interest in employees but also guide and challenge them through frequent and respectful feedback — good and bad.

About 35 managers at the company are being trained in the approach, she says, with the rest of the staff to follow soon. A recent real-world example came when the CEO told a mid-level manager not to lose his cool with his project team “‘or there’s not going to be a place for you here,’ ” Miller recounts. And the candor should flow up, as well as down. “True leaders want that,” she says.

Are Acorio employees skeptical of radical candor?

Some call it a buzzword, she concedes, “but it’s not,” she says. “We’re not helping ourselves or helping our people when we don’t address where they’re off track and try to bring them on track. Strong people want to know how to do better.”


Jonathan Saltzman is a Boston Globe staff writer. He can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @saltzmanglobe.