Leaders should revisit the works of three corporate culture pioneers
A trio of 20th-century thinkers yields insights into how to align culture with strategy and energize employees today.
A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of strategy+business.
As consultants, we’ve been working in the world of corporate culture much longer than it has been popular to do so. Over the past ten years, culture has become a regular topic of discussion among leaders, and writing on the topic has exploded. And yet, even with these new and sometimes very insightful voices to draw from, we find ourselves repeating the wisdom of three 20th-century thinkers: Leon Festinger, Frederick Herzberg, and Daniel Goleman.
We assure you, we’re not just stuck on “the oldies.” Rather, we’re pointing you to classics. These authors put forward clear, pragmatic insights that have stood the test of time. Used together, these ideas help form a foundation for successful cultural alignment and evolution. Simply put, these “oldies” are goodies that have worked for decades—and still do.
So, who are these folks, and how is what they said years ago still relevant today?
Festinger (1919–89) was an American psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan, who was best known for developing the theory of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s.
What he said: Festinger’s theory proposes that a mismatch between beliefs and behaviors causes psychological tension (i.e., cognitive dissonance). In other words, if you believe a certain thing, but your actions do not line up with that belief, you will feel uneasy until you modify either your beliefs or your actions (or both). In contrast, acting in accordance with your beliefs achieves resonance, or positive feelings about what you are doing.
Why his ideas are still relevant: Understanding Festinger’s theory and ensuring that words and actions align gives leaders the metaphorical grease for motivating employees. For instance, organizations today have caught on to the idea of energizing employees around a shared purpose or mission. But for employees to sustain energy for any change related to that mission, leaders need to ensure employees can act out the promise of the mission. If words and actions cannot align, it will dampen the impact of the company’s message and breed discontent. PwC’s Global Culture Survey 2021 identifies the negative impact of a disconnect between what organizations say about culture and what employees experience. For example, a financial institution that touts its customer-centricity but doesn’t give its call center workers the latitude to forgive a late fee for loyal customers yields frustrated, dissatisfied employees and customers.
Making the necessary changes to align your culture with your business goals is gradual work. Sometimes finding behaviors that resonate with existing mindsets but nonetheless move the organization in a new, desired direction nonetheless can create powerful momentum. We often work in an iterative dance, starting with behaviors, then coming back to mindsets.
Herzberg (1923–2000), another American psychologist, taught at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Utah. He became one of the most influential figures in management thinking, and is best known for developing the concept of job enrichment and for the motivator hygiene theory, developed in 1964.
These ‘oldies’ on corporate culture are goodies that have worked for decades—and still do.
What he said: The most important motivator is the work itself! Herzberg demonstrated that motivation—the drive to perform and achieve—lies not in external drivers (whether incentives or punishments), but instead in making the actual work itself more satisfying.
Why his ideas are still relevant: In a time when many employers are trying to figure out what combination of perks, pay, and purpose will help them combat the “great resignation,” many are overlooking Herzberg’s simple message: it’s not all that stuff but the work itself—and employees’ emotional connection to it—that drives employees.
According to Herzberg, the key to motivating workers is enriching their jobs by giving them enough responsibility, control, and data to facilitate growth and “play,” or experimentation. Today’s leaders and managers should ask themselves: Do employees have a view of and control over their work, from inputs to impact? Can they take on new but surmountable challenges? Is there room for them to make mistakes? Is there an opportunity for feedback that can inform more experimentation? The people one works with also have a significant impact on employees’ feelings toward the work (just as much as, if not more than, the person one works for). This is because of the contagious effect of how others feel about the work.
Great, one might say—if leaders could ensure mindsets and actions line up (Festinger) and enrich each employee’s job (Herzberg), they could unlock immense stores of positive energy for the organization. But how can any large entity do this? That’s where Daniel Goleman comes in.
A longtime New York Times science journalist and the author of numerous books, Goleman, born in 1946, is most celebrated for his groundbreaking work on “emotional intelligence,” detailed in his 1995 book of the same name and in many subsequent works.
What he said: Goleman identified that, contrary to what was then the popular belief, traditional intelligence, or IQ, cannot fully explain an individual’s success and impact. Rather, a critical determinant of success lies in what Goleman termed emotional intelligence, or EQ. He defined EQ abilities across five categories: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. He provided tools for how to identify individuals with superior EQ. He also pointed out that organizations not only fail to prioritize these characteristics in hiring and promotion, but often unwittingly screen against them. Goleman didn’t argue against the value of data-driven analysis and rational influence. Instead, he called to light the still overlooked emotional side of management and success.
Why his ideas are still relevant: Many leaders are overlooking the people most critical to their organization’s success. Many organizations do now consider EQ, particularly in hiring. But they inadvertently filter against it. Self-awareness (candor) is often seen as highlighting weakness, self-regulation (restraint) is often seen as lack of passion, and empathy (awareness of others’ feelings) is often seen as an inability to make hard decisions. Promotions are most often based on people’s performance in their current roles as opposed to demonstrated capabilities for the management roles they might step into.
But emotionally intelligent people, whom we at PwC’s Katzenbach Center call authentic informal leaders, or AILs, are the key to putting the concepts of Festinger and Herzberg into action at scale. AILs undoubtedly exist throughout your organization, at all levels and in all departments. You can find them through simple surveys, crowdsourced nominations, and interviews. When working with clients, we sometimes use organizational network analysis, which allows companies to construct maps of complex internal social relations using email and instant message statistics, as well as meeting records. On the most basic level, you can simply ask employees, “Who do you look to within the organization when you are having a problem?” Patterns will emerge.
Finding AILs is at the heart of our work. They have an innate understanding of Festinger’s and Herzberg’s theories and a knack for applying them. They help identify behaviors that align with an organization’s objectives and beliefs, and they help employees and peers construct fulfilling roles. It’s through AILs’ insights and way of being that we unlock resonance and self-sustaining motivation within an organization—and ultimately drive transformation.
Putting it all together
Understanding the ways in which the work of Festinger, Herzberg, and Goleman overlaps is critical to achieving the high-performing cultures that organizations now finally see as so important to their success. It takes first realizing the power of what Festinger and Herzberg detail, then seeing that you need the type of help Goleman describes to implement those ideas.
These three authors, read together, provide an understanding of why successful cultural interventions work. But they also give achievable, time-tested strategies for how to get started on your own cultural transformation. Armed with this knowledge, you can drive dramatic change. Begin with a pilot. Pick one team or department and give it a try!