Who could blame you for taking a “just the facts” approach to managing your organization? Business is built on foundations like finance, accounting and operations. But you’ll need more than facts to successfully manage people.

Matthew Semadeni, Ph.D., a professor of strategy at ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business, says that people are the key to gaining a competitive advantage, so business leaders can’t afford to rely solely on data.

“The truth is, we are all swimming in data right now,” he says. “Not just customer data but employee data, economic data, competitor data and much more. But what we really need is insight. Many organizations have access to all their data, but that doesn’t tell them why their top performer is top. That requires insight.

“Statistical analysis of the data is important, but that alone will not get you to insight,” Semadeni says. “Insight is acquired over time. It means going beyond the data to say, ‘What does that actually mean?’”

Culture, meaning and mediocrity

When he teaches about insight and people management, Semadeni looks at whether organizations “have a taking culture versus a giving culture, as well as how they incentivize work.”

Semadeni says employees usually come in three types: givers, takers and matchers (i.e., matching what is given). “The type of employees you build your organization with determines the type of organization you will have,” he says.  

“The type of employees you build your organization with determines the type of organization you will have.” – Click to tweet

“Another concept I teach about is the nature and meaning of work,” he says. “People want not only a paycheck but also meaning in what they’re doing, but managers often kill the meaning in the work.”

Getting the most out of employees requires considering their hopes, fears and goals. And if that sounds like a lot of interests to manage…well, it is.

“A big part of the challenge is not only the care and support of employees and ensuring they have the psychological safety and opportunity to try things and potentially fail, but also that they’re held responsible and held to account,” he says. “Nothing kills a culture quicker than allowing mediocrity to persist.”

“But a lot of this discussion is around the meaning – what does work mean? There’s been a shift. Years ago, you went to work in order to work, and then you went and found meaning in something else outside of work.

“But in last decade or so we’ve seen a transition where people really want to have meaning within their work. They want more than just producing widgets. They want to make things better,” he says.  

Semadeni says an example of this is that many green/sustainability initiatives are internally driven. “Workers want to believe in and work for a company that has these values and processes as part of its culture.”

Aligning culture and strategy

Mission statements and strategic goals can be powerful tools in aligning company culture with strategy, Semadeni says, but he warns they can also be de-motivating depending on how they are handled.

“The alignment of mission statements with reality and the actual competitive advantage of the firm shows either a good culture or problematic culture,” he says.

“The alignment of mission statements with reality shows either a good culture or problematic culture.” – Click to tweet

The mission statement can guide and reinforce a good culture if it helps people solve problems. For example, Semadeni says, the Washington Post’s mission now uses the slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness” – a simple statement of meaning about what the news organization stands for and what it aims to do.

“Short statements can be powerful and can motivate actions,” he says, “while longer statements are less useful and more likely to be buried somewhere in a company document and never read.”

Disney is another example, he says. Their “Make People Happy” mission provides clear guidance to managers. “You don’t need to have the CEO sitting right behind you guiding you – you can use that statement to guide and motivate your actions,” he says.

On the flip side, Semadeni says you’ve got a problematic culture if many of your employees don’t even know your company has a mission statement, many laugh at it jadedly, and the rest are true believers.

“Part of the problem in bridging that culture gap is that managers just feel that it’s too hard,” he says. “They fall back on the HR manual or processes – they avoid thinking about how strategy and culture go together.

“When I teach these concepts to executives, one of the takeaways I’m trying to provide is that people are the heart of competitive advantage …and the hope that their organization will be proactive and act on that knowledge.”


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