How Storytelling Can Make or Break Your Organization’s Culture

Jul 23, 2019 | Culture

Once upon a time, there was a CEO who visited a job site. When he noticed that the porta-potties onsite were sourced from a major city, rather than the local town where the work was being conducted, he quickly made sure that the big-city porta-potties were replaced with a local alternative. The end.

Not exactly thrilling stuff, but, believe it or not, this story is magical.

This story – and others like it – are central to a large and growing company’s thriving organizational culture. The employees at this company tell and retell this story with pride; for them it is emblematic of their commitment to the local economy, a feature which has become a cornerstone of their culture and identity. We recently worked with this company to help cement their outstanding culture in the face of rapid expansion. Strategically deploying and developing this story and others was integral to the process of bottling and perpetuating their culture’s value.

Culture Matters

An organization’s culture is the shared assumptions, beliefs, and unspoken behavioural rules that exist in the DNA of an organization. Because we can’t see or touch an organization’s culture, leadership often deprioritizes culture management. But that approach couldn’t be more misguided: it has been proven that investing in creating and sustaining a high-performing culture has substantial effects on a company’s bottom line.

According to an 11-year study, companies that value well-managed corporate cultures experienced a 682% increase in revenue growth, as compared to a 166% increase in companies that lacked a culture management strategy. This translated to an increase in net income growth of 756% compared to only 1% in the companies that did not actively manage their cultures.

Stories = Culture

But, how do you make culture happen, and how do you make it better? Think for a moment, beyond organizational culture and consider “culture” as a broader category. If you were to ask an academic, “what makes culture?,” one answer would be myths or stories.

We tell stories to make sense of the world and our place in it – storytelling is an act of interpretation. Culture is what happens when certain stories take hold, and certain ways of interpreting the world become so ingrained in us that we can hardly feel their effect; we simply believe that is how the world is, or at least how it ought to be.

Think, for example, about the quintessential love story, or romance. These popular stories are everywhere, in books and movies, in songs and advertisements. Together they form a culture; these stories become essential to the way we imagine and understand love. They create a structure in our minds that we use, almost without reflection, to evaluate and understand our own experiences. If we don’t experience romantic love, or if the versions of love we experience do not match with the expectations set by these stories, we feel somehow incomplete or inadequate.

Believe it or not, this is how organizational culture is formed as well. Think about it – leaders and employees, whether deliberately or unconsciously, tell stories about what it’s like working at the organization. These stories get repeated and they begin to snowball, until they become myths that define what it means to be part of that organization. It can be just as difficult to shake off these stories as it can be to shake off the feeling that life is incomplete without romantic love.

Telling the right stories

What this means is that by changing the stories told at your organization, or making sure you are telling the right, strategic stories, you can harness the power of storytelling to build a positive organizational culture that can lead to tangible economic benefits.

Here at MacPhie, we offer a range of culture transformation services that can turn your organizational culture into an asset, in part by leveraging the power of storytelling to optimize your organization’s culture and performance.

By: Elissa Gurman

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