Stories are the programming language of culture.
The stories people share in an organization reinforce the underlying beliefs and assumptions that shape the culture. To shift culture, reprogram it with new stories.
There is power in stories as they inform, persuade and educate. Using the power of storytelling, you can tap into foundational beliefs that shape culture.
An example is the story that’s been told and retold about Nordstrom. Someone brought a set of tires to the customer service desk. Although Nordstrom does not sell and never has sold tires, the associate processed a refund.
Although that’s unlikely, the reinforcing power of the story is that it communicates the value of customer service. It’s far more effective to share that story than to say, “A Nordstrom core value is customer service.”
Benefits of stories
- Stories capture people’s imagination, which makes them easy to remember and pass on. At one startup, I had a leader who repeatedly told how and why he founded the company. It created a compelling draw for new employees and imbued the entrepreneurial culture with a “can-do” attitude. It shaped a culture that grew to 25 offices and 1,600 employees in five years. There was a consistency of culture because of the emphasis on that shared history.
- Stories connect emotion with facts, which inspires people to take action. As Alan Weiss says, “Logic makes you think; emotion makes you act.” This is especially helpful when you’re making the case for change.
- Stories can break down barriers by addressing potential objections, suspicions or concerns before they are even raised. They can also reduce barriers by building trust. For example, a leadership team replaced an administration that had rained terror on the employees. The new team acknowledged the damage and shared its vision for a more constructive culture, a new way of working together.
Stories reinforce beliefs that either support or undermine your culture change. We are guided by stories. We listen to stories, tell stories, share stories and, most important, behave in ways that support stories. Change your stories, and be changed by them.
There are several key types of stories that shape culture.
- “Identity” stories are about who we are and where we came from. They capture what’s unique and special in the organization’s DNA.
- “Success” and “failure” stories are about what is rewarded versus what is punished.
- “Future” stories are about where the organization is going.
Those are the core stories that you can tell or that your culture will define. Change the story to change the culture. Here’s how those story types work:
Identity: Do all employees understand why the organization exists and how it came into being? A powerful identity story shapes the essence of the organization and the connection that employees feel. A colleague told us about a sales meeting in which his client shared the story of the company’s founding. He detailed the struggles of the early days and all that the leadership team did to make it successful over the years. Not only was it inspiring to our colleague, it made him want to work harder to win their business and help them be even more successful.
Questions to shape an identity story:
- Where did we come from, and why do we exist?
- Who are we, and what makes us special?
- How do we fit in to the industry, field or organizational landscape?
- How do we view the world around us?
Success/failure: These are the stories that provide clues for how employees should behave. Success stories talk about what happens when you do something well. At one organization, research scientists did something amazing decades ago and are still revered. They were well compensated despite contributing nothing in the recent past. The success story of this organization was that if you make one big contribution, you will have a meal ticket for life.
Questions to shape a success or failure story:
- What do people do to get promoted, raises or recognition?
- When something fails, what happens?
There are people who are doing the things that represent the way you want your culture to be. Find them, and showcase them. Celebrate the success of what’s working. You get more of what you focus on. Tell stories about what’s wildly successful.
Future: Does everyone in the organization know which direction to move? There are millions of dollars in lost productivity from decisions that do not align to the leader’s vision. The more clear and aligned employees are about the vision and strategy, the more consistently resources are deployed, decisions are made and actions are focused on the right future.
Questions to shape a future story:
- Where are we going, and how will we get there?
- Why is this the right direction for our organization?
As you shape new stories, answer the questions and make sure you have all the pieces:
- The point represents the main message, central idea or the theme that you want to convey through the story: What element of your culture does the story highlight?
- The background details the setting (when/where it happened) and the characters (the people involved).
- The plot is the series of events that took place to overcome obstacles or achieve goals: What was the struggle, and how did the characters overcome it? This is all about what happens.
- The conclusion is how it ends. Connect this to the point that you want to reinforce.
Once you have the pieces, make it sticky. Pull all the pieces together in a compelling story that creates curiosity and inspires people to care.
If you have some interesting stories related to culture or story resources, please share in the comments section.
A version of this article originally appeared on CultureUniversity.com.