Employees in a meeting.

Your corporate legacy: Co-workers will decide if it lasts

New research by Assistant Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship Tyler Sabey examines the durability of legacies in technology, policy, and corporate culture.

By Betsy Loeff

“You don’t need to be a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates to have an impact and leave a legacy,” says Tyler Sabey, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship. “Anyone can have a legacy,” he adds, but there’s a catch: The durability of your legacy is entirely out of your hands.

This is true whether you’re a CEO or a low-level manager. “A legacy doesn’t begin until the person behind it is gone,” Sabey explains. “At that point, the legacy is turned over to others.” How they react depends on several factors that Sabey and a team of researchers considered in a recent article.

Legends that may fall

Sabey defines legacy as “the enduring contribution or lasting imprint an individual makes.” This broad definition means legacies don’t originate only in the C-suite and may or may not be felt companywide.

Among things that could be considered legacies are transformational technology that someone champions, a policy or company tradition that shapes corporate culture, and even a great set of processes that simplifies the job for a few people in one work unit.

One legacy Sabey points to is the distribution of office space at Hall Render, the largest health care law firm in the U.S. There, attorney offices are the same size regardless of whether that attorney is a neophyte or a high-level partner.

“The firm's founders believed that everyone is important, so they made every office the same size,” Sabey says. “It’s a tangible symbol of how they run their business to minimize hierarchy.”

It didn’t have to work that way. “Once Mr. Hall and Mr. Render moved on, the next partner could have erased this legacy and said, ‘No way. I want a corner office,’” Sabey notes. Since Hall and Render weren’t around to defend that legacy, it could easily have been discarded.

Sabey and his team would call Hall and Render “legators,” a term for those who start legacies in the first place. Those on the receiving end, the co-workers left after the legator leaves, are called legatees.

Among the factors that impact how legatees carry on a legacy or chuck it, you’ll find feelings of ownership or disownership. Are people emotionally tied to the legacy? Did they contribute to it and feel in a way that it is also theirs? That’s ownership. But what if the legatee feels left out of the legacy creation? What if that legatee disagrees with what was created? That could result in feelings or subconscious disowning of the legacy.

Both ownership and disownership could result in passive or active responses among legatees. “If we are very tied to the legator and want to champion the legacy, then we’re evangelizing and doing what we can do to ensure this legacy endures,” Sabey says. That’s the active approach to ownership, and he says he sees it in how Hall and Render still operate long after the founders were gone.

“It’s clear that the attorneys who are now working in this firm know why offices are set up the way they are and who instigated this legacy,” he continues. “It could have gone differently, with everyone having the same size offices but not knowing why. The legacy would remain, but it’s being maintained passively, not evangelized.”

Along with conscious or unconscious feelings of ownership, evangelizing and maintaining legacies occurs when legatees feel strong psychological needs for continuity in the workplace and affinity with the legator.

Life or death

Disowning the legacy has behaviors attached. It might occur actively, where legatees replace what was created with something else or do away with it intentionally. For instance, the researchers note that shifts in leadership often come accompanied by deliberate changes in rituals, company jargon, and other culture builders.

The passive approach to disowning the legacy is letting it fizzle out through neglect. What would that look like? It could allow technology to become outdated; a replacement must be found. It might be letting an archive become so incomplete or hard to navigate that people quit accessing it. Or, it might be skipping a ritual so often that it ceases to be a habit, the researchers note in their paper.

Sabey and the team maintain that neglecting and erasing legacies are ways of demonstrating psychological needs for distinctiveness and efficacy. That is, such behaviors are motivated by the urge to establish differentiation or enhance feelings of competence and control, the researchers say. There may be a rivalry to some degree with the legator involved as well.

Regardless of the motivation, the result is the same for legacies people want to continue or discard. “Once legators leave, they can no longer maintain control of their reputations or contributions and the meaning or significance they have,” Sabey says.

He adds, “So much of the research into legacies is focused on high-level executives, but even an average Joe can have a lasting impact. If people recognized this, we could have a more positive, productive, and effective workforce. We all can leave a legacy. Let’s make it a positive one.”

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