Why is poor decision-making so prevalent in today's society? What role can the business community play in helping people make decisions that are more personally and socially beneficial?
These complex and far-reaching questions were the subject of lively discussion Friday at the University of Virginia during the McIntire School of Commerce's 2011 Fall Forum, "Cultivating Well-Being: The Necessary Role of Business Leaders, Researchers and Educators." The forum was held in Old Cabell Hall and presented by the McIntire School's Center for Growth Enterprises.
Kicking off the discussion was keynote speaker Punam Anand Keller, Charles Henry Jones Third Century Professor of Management at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business.
An internationally recognized expert in the areas of health promotion and financial literacy, she discussed not only the challenges of defining and quantifying well-being, but also of improving the dishearteningly low participation rates in corporate and public well-being programs. She outlined some of the methods she has developed for improving the success of such programs, including simplifying the instructions for opening a retirement account and showing employees a five-minute video featuring their colleagues discussing why they'd chosen to participate in a particular well-being program.
"You have to show people the benefits of engaging in certain behaviors," Keller said. "You have to tailor your marketing to their needs."
Keller challenged audience members to consider how, through their businesses, research or teaching, they might work to improve the well-being of their various relevant stakeholders.
Perhaps most significantly, Keller stressed the compatibility of profitability and practices that enhance employee and consumer well-being.
"Well-being is positively correlated with profitability," she said. "There's a direct relationship between employee and customer satisfaction and growth, profitability and consumer loyalty."
Keller's talk was followed by a panel discussion of academic and policy perspectives on well-being. The panel offered views on issues ranging from the question of free choice to the extent to which a government should make moral judgments on behalf of its citizens.
Panelist Dogan Eroglu, associate director for communication science at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pointed out the degree to which personal health decisions – such as smoking or eating an unhealthful diet – affect the entire society.
"Health is not 'somebody else's business,'" he said. "Business must work with society to help solve problems that impact society."
Commenting on a discussion of the threat of government paternalism, Josh Wright, acting director of the Office of Financial Education and Financial Access in the U.S. Department of the Treasury, suggested that there is no such thing as free choice.
"Whether government- or market-influenced, all choices are biased in some way," he said. "There's no need to mandate behaviors, but why not help to structure people's decisions? Why not have people default into positive programs, such as savings plans?"
The panel also discussed the contentious issue of morality in the policy-making processes of business and government leaders. Eroglu pointed out the complexity of the issue: Whether or not policy decisions are cast in moral terms, he said, "they may prove to have enormous moral and social consequences."
The forum closed with a panel discussion of executive perspectives on well-being, focusing largely on the relationship between business practices that enhance the well-being of employees and customers, and growth and profitability. Agreeing that such business practices undoubtedly have a positive impact on the bottom line, the panelists went on to discuss particular ways of enacting and improving them.
Dianne Morse Houghton, chief operating officer of New Leaders and a 1982 McIntire graduate, stressed the benefits of investing in employees and creating the most positive possible workplace environment. "Never have a doubt that creating an environment where people can do their best work is the best thing for the bottom line," she told the audience.
Andy Schoonover, a 2001 McIntire graduate and chief executive officer of Valued Relationships Inc., agreed, pointing out that his company's employment practices have led to remarkably low rates of turnover and continued growth within a flat industry. "There's a natural connection between treating employees well and return on investment," he said.
Taking a slightly different tack, Jerry Ng, president and chief executive officer of Indonesia's Bank Tabungan Pensiunan Nasional – which has been growing at a 40 percent annual rate – stressed the business benefits of creating an organization that is truly and broadly beneficial to its customers.
BTPN, which serves a largely low-income, elderly clientele, offers not only caring customer service, but also superb auxiliary services, including free medical clinics in its bank branches; seminars on living healthy physical, spiritual and social lives; and courses in financial management. Engaging in such well-being-enhancing practices, Ng said, "is not only philosophically good, it creates competitive advantages."
McIntire Dean Carl Zeithaml, who moderated the panel, commented on the common-sense nature of many of the most effective well-being-enhancing practices. Such practices, he noted, involved creativity, but not complexity.
"There are simple ways to make a big difference," he said.
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