I still remember the stories people told me when I joined a consulting firm I once worked for. Mostly, they were dramatic accounts of struggle resulting in the survival of the fittest and the demise of the weak. Tales of personal sacrifice and heroic “wins” that made failure seem utterly unacceptable.
The most compelling myth seemed to be that of the survivor - someone who’d managed to withstand the hardships of the consulting career and still be with the firm a few years down the line.
These stories were the clearest message I can recall on what was expected from me: I knew I had to be really tough and fearless. Work really hard and learn really fast. I knew that if I wasn’t prepared to occasionally cancel my holidays to deliver a project within the deadlines or pull “all-nighters” to deliver a report on time, there’d be no place for me on the team. And I’d decided pretty early on that I wouldn’t stay a minute longer than necessary to gain enough experience to be able to move on to something better. I just didn’t see myself proudly retelling the same stories to anyone I knew or cared about.
Stories are one of the most powerful tools we, humans, possess. They’ve been a fundamental part of our experience for millennia. From Aesop to Shakespeare to Dan Brown, a good story has always had the ability to shape the way we think, feel and act.
David Boye from Loyola University says that stories “are part of an organization-wide information-processing network. Bits and pieces of organization experience are recounted socially throughout the firm to formulate […] collective accounts that will serve as precedent for individual assumption, decision, and action. This is the institutional memory system of the organization.”
Stories are a vital part of company culture and by listening to them, we easily pick up on what’s valued and what’s not valued. Most of us have heard the story about a Nordstrom’s customer service rep happily handling a return of a snow tire, even though Nordstrom... doesn’t sell snow tires! We hear the story and we don’t need to be told that Nordstrom’s values customer service.
There are many types of stories that can shape culture. Here are the three basic ones:
“WHERE WE CAME FROM” STORIES
These are the stories about company or team identity, the heritage, raison d'être. They answer questions such as: “Where do we come from?”. “Why do we exist?, “What makes us unique?”. Truly powerful “where we came from” stories instil a sense of pride, identity, cohesion and commitment.
“WHERE WE’RE GOING” STORIES
These stories paint the picture of the desired future, the vision. They talk about what’s possible. They point people in a certain direction. They generate excitement, inspire and motivate people and give them a sense of common goal and direction.
War stories recount what happened to people in the organisation or the team. They usually come in two versions: cautionary tales or success stories. They tend to give people clues as to what works and what doesn’t work, what is and what isn't valued, what is punished and what is rewarded. They give them a clear sense of behavioural norms in the group.
If you want to change your team or company culture, the stories that people share will need to change, too. As Erwin Raphael McManus said, "Whoever tells the best story, shapes the culture."
So, here are a few things to consider to intentionally shape your culture through storytelling:
- What stories are people sharing at the moment?
- What does it tell you about your perceived past, future and what’s currently valued in your organisation? Is it aligned with the kind of culture you want to cultivate?
- How can you identify and capture the stories that reinforce the culture you desire to have?
- How can you share these stories?
- What would be the best channels to do that? Face-to-face, blogs, newsletters, social media?
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