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EY’s Joe Dettmann, Ph.D: “To create a fantastic work culture we need to shift the paradigm on how we conceive of work and what it means to deliver value”

We really need to reevaluate how we think about work — is it just something we HAVE to do, but for the most part, loathe? We are a connected ecosystem of government, education, employers, communities, and so much more. We will need to shift the paradigm on how we conceive of work and what it means to […]


We really need to reevaluate how we think about work — is it just something we HAVE to do, but for the most part, loathe? We are a connected ecosystem of government, education, employers, communities, and so much more. We will need to shift the paradigm on how we conceive of work and what it means to deliver value. Each involved entity will need to do its part in this. Government will need better infrastructure, policies, procedures programs and laws. Education will need to better prepare young people to work happily, productively. Employers will need to deliver a better employee experience. We are working at all of this, but it will take time for us to evolve a massively complex system. In the meantime, we’ll each need to own our attitude and situation.


As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Dettmann, Ph.D. Joe is a Principal at EY and leads EY’s Leadership Advisory Services practice and Global Culture Transformation business. Joe works with Boards, Executive Management teams, HR Executives and other leaders to assess, define, design and shift leadership capability and company culture. He uses new technology and agile methodology, builds transformative leadership capabilities in his clients and helps them to modernized their people practices. In his role Joe manages a global team of experts and an ecosystem of partners, such as Harvard, and other educational institutions. Joe also works directly with clients, publishes actively, and speaks at client and industry events. Joe lives with his wife and three children in Grand Rapids, Michigan and holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. To see Joe’s recent publication in the Global Leadership Forecast, click here.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Joe! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Even as a young child I was intensely interested in human behavior. Family and other social dynamics influenced and fanned the flame of my interest. In school I figured out through some remarkable teachers that behavioral science was a real thing — something you could make a living at practicing. The field of Industrial/Organizational Psychology, the study of human behavior at work, was for me. I love using research, data, process and technology to shift how people experience their work, at large scale.

When I became a consultant, I was able to influence my clients and teams by bringing real scientific practice and rigor to what many have considered the ‘soft stuff’. But to me, workforce engagement, talent, culture have never been the soft stuff. I believe they’re the real, human stuff — and that makes them inherently hard to get right. People need help being their best, and creating an environment where other people can be their best. Many senior leaders have come to appreciate this and in some small way I get to play a role in this movement to make work all about people.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I have the privilege of seeing and helping to advise/lead across many companies, from Boards to front-line employees. So I have seen a lot of bad practices, good intentions with bad execution, and also real transformation. Real transformation almost always requires some sort of trigger from leadership.

Take this example. The board and executive team, and especially the CEO, of a large global manufacturing company I work with have gone from skeptical of investing in off-balance sheet matters, such as people programs and culture, to full believers. Through a lot of hard work, they have embraced a new collective mindset as a leadership team. That sparked a serious and logical movement to shift how they think, feel and act as a company, every day, at every level. They are transforming in about every way possible — and have come to realize that they can’t do any of it, or make any of it last, if they don’t shift their culture. It started with leaders and includes involving and empowering every pair of boots on the ground.

It’s remarkable to be a part of the flip from ‘all out’ to ‘all in’ on properly investing in the people equation. Shifting the collective conscience and how people experience their work, whether in big or small ways, does true good in the world.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

What’s new and exciting is using new people and performance data (much of which is already generated), analytics and technologies to positively impact people at work. Where we have the ability to do intense hands-on work, we have always been able to move hearts and minds in small teams. By using data in new ways, getting smarter insights, real time from analytics, we are now able to influence behavior at scale.

We’re also able to tie change to our human psychology and sociology (see neuro- and cognitive psychology) at work and to make it meaningful for people in new ways. For example, if we’re helping leaders be more empathetic with their customers and teams (which has been found to be an important emergent leadership competency), we no longer just tell them what to do. We can show them HOW, for example by having them experience what someone different from him/her does in augmented or virtual reality simulation.

We are doing so many creative things like this with data and new technologies to unlock human potential at scale. Another example is social network analysis. Every company has formal structures, levels, roles and governance models, but there’s also an informal network at work that historically has been hard/impossible to see. We look at how collaboration really gets done, how information really spreads, how people are really influenced. And we can drive real change through that network by identifying influencers. Better data + the right analytics + great insights = real behavioral change at scale.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

There are dozens of reasons. Humans are the most complex organism in history. Now, put a bunch of them together in a system, which we call a company or organization, and now we have the most infinitely complex ecosystem one could fathom. Consider three challenges.

First, our technology developments and strategic ambitions have outpaced our collective learning and readiness to adapt. We are not moving fast enough for select people, but for most we are moving too fast. We are trying to accomplish new things with old ways of working. We see a disconnect between what many companies and senior leaders hope to accomplish and the daily experience and willingness/reediness to shift by ‘boots on the ground’. So, we have a dissonance among people in companies that I believe has only grown. We see this same pattern in the concerning growing wealth disparity. Cue the statistics that show the gap between CEO pay and the average employees.

Second, we have failed to deliver on a fulfilling employee experience. It’s not up to an underfunded HR department to solve it alone. Sure, HR has under delivered in some organizations — but delivering an experience that allows people to be their best selves at work every day should really be a business issue. Human to human, we must build trusting, healthy environments each day. Systems, processes, policies, protocols and controls are important, but must be properly calibrated. People are yearning for human experience at work — our fundamental psychological and social human needs are often not being met. We want to belong. We want to be respected. We want freedom. We want to learn. We want to be valued. We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves — something meaningful. There are hundreds of variables that can block these needs. If a company’s culture is unhealthy and people are unhappy, the social network of the company is broken. It’s hard to love what you do when a system around you makes it hard.

Finally, there is an element of personal ownership in happiness at work as well. We each choose our attitude every day. It is sometimes easier to be dissatisfied than satisfied. There’s a history of it being fashionable to loathe work. So there is a societal shift that needs to happen as well.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

There are hundreds of studies that quantify the impact of low engagement on performance, health and wellbeing. Despite good intentions and attempts, on the whole we are losing serious productivity and are hurting ourselves psychologically and physically.

As part of the Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism, EY recently reported that on average 52% of a company’s market value is derived from intangible assets. And that number is as high as 90% for some companies. If we are not taking care of the people, we are seriously limiting our collective potential.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Make the culture and people a Board and executive matter. This has to go beyond succession planning and compensation for senior roles. Companies with strong healthy cultures have Boards and executives who invest their time in it.
  2. Keep your culture in lock step with your core company purpose and strategy. The why, what and how have to stay in sync. Successful companies have an aligned, clear, compelling, complete, realistic blueprint that people can relate to.
  3. Invest enough in modernizing culture, over the long run. Shifting culture isn’t a short term initiative you can do with a bunch of tired HR people. It takes the same level of design, process, investment, and continued energy as anything else. Successful companies work at it every day, with dedicated teams and real money.
  4. Make it an everyone issue. Culture shift happens top down AND bottom up. Successful companies build ownership through their social network and a sense of personal pride and ownership for shepherding the culture of the company.
  5. Measure it. What gets measured gets managed. Culture can be reliably measured. There are clear markers. Successful companies have an ongoing/regular read on the health and strength of their culture.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

We really need to reevaluate how we think about work — is it just something we HAVE to do, but for the most part, loathe? We are a connected ecosystem of government, education, employers, communities, and so much more. We will need to shift the paradigm on how we conceive of work and what it means to deliver value. Each involved entity will need to do its part in this. Government will need better infrastructure, policies, procedures programs and laws. Education will need to better prepare young people to work happily, productively. Employers will need to deliver a better employee experience.

We are working at all of this, but it will take time for us to evolve a massively complex system. In the meantime, we’ll each need to own our attitude and situation.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I would say it’s balanced between caring for my team and driving performance. I’m agile and flexible, yet willing to get into the depths of detail when needed. And I like the notion of “forward” — I’m always pushing for what is next with my team. All of this is rooted in science yet focused on creative solutions.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Yes. A mentor of mine out of graduate school, in my first career job. He taught me a great deal through his strengths and his faults. As a young consultant focused on serving my teams and delivering work to clients I remember him coming into my office each day. He would sit down and ask one question: what have you sold today? Now, we he didn’t mean selling people cold on products, but he meant what have you done today to be proactive, to think about the next thing, to feed your team tomorrow? With one, simple question he focused my mind to something very simple.

He also reinforced to me the value of working hard — and yet at the same time the risks of not taking the time to break along the way. He prided himself on being first in, first out. On working as hard as he could as much as he could — he had an unquenched thirst to always prove himself. There is value in that. On the other hand, he may have over done it. He passed away unexpectedly of a rare blood cancer. Within weeks he was gone. The last picture of him is in his hospital gown, near death, at the very end, on his work-issued Blackberry. It in the end he may not have let go of the work enough. It defined him more than I will let it define me. When I am faced with a conflict between work and family I think back to this, and always choose family.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

In three ways. Most importantly, I work to raise two strong and good young men, and one strong and good young woman.

I try to deliver real, practical change for the better to each organization I touch. I do my best to mentor my team and build our own culture.

And finally, I give as much of my time and energy as I can to my family, friends and community.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are so many. Henry Ford’s ‘chop your own wood and it will warm you twice’ is profound to me. It is a reminder to be resourceful. To do the work. I am first generation college-educated, from a blue collar family. I grew up in the shadow of a shuttered GM plant. I went on to get a PhD in my field and to be a Partner at EY. In our family that has been a big deal. The quote helps me to remember simpler times and the hard labor of my parents and grandparents to afford me the opportunity I had. Doing the work, even chopping wood, is noble.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

EY’s purpose is: building a better working world. I’m seriously into that. It means something different to each person that touches it, but to me it means helping people to be more fulfilled in what they do at work each day. We’re creating positive movements company by company to help businesses deliver on a healthier employee experience.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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