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How stories can reinforce the culture you want

4 min read


What stories are told in your organization today? Are you aware of them? Do they reinforce your desired culture or do they inspire undesired actions?

Most leaders I speak to don’t pay attention to stories that are told in their company. They should, though, because stories are powerful. Stories direct actions, sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly. They inspire action over inaction –which can be a good thing, if those stories inspire aligned behavior and considerate interactions.

If the wrong stories are being told, people will be drawn to emulate the actions and practices the story reinforces. Here’s an example. One client had a “do whatever it takes” service culture. One day a shipment didn’t go out on time, which meant a customer commitment was at risk. The person that discovered the issue realized that if she got the package to the UPS facility at the airport by 5 p.m., overnight service would get the package to the client’s site by 10 a.m. It would be a day late but not two or three days late. Overnight shipping would cost hundreds of dollars but the package would get there quickly.

She prepared the shipment and drove rather madly to arrive at the airport just as the UPS office was closing. They took the package and the client got it the next morning. The company celebrated the employee’s service mindset and her solution by an all-company announcement and a $20 gift card.

The message that employees heard wasn’t to ensure shipments go out on time. What they heard was when you miss a shipment and engage in heroic (and expensive) recovery, you’ll be celebrated!

A different client had a very cool practice of year-end gifting. If the company exceeded profitability targets, full-time employees could gift as much as $1,000 to the charity of their choice. One employee decided to give his full allotment to a local nonprofit animal shelter where he and his wife had adopted a kitten a year before.

He went to their office one rainy afternoon and offered the check to the receptionist. She looked at the check and burst into tears! She asked him to stay for a minute while she scurried into the hallway.

Us men don’t know what to do when a woman cries. Mostly we’re tempted to run away. He was about to sneak out and head home when four women came into the lobby, all sniffling. The group grabbed him in a big hug. The executive director, who was holding the check, thanked him for his gift. She told him the shelter was having a cash-flow issue. They were meeting that very moment to figure out how to buy food for their animals — because they would have run out within two days.

The story was widely shared.

The message that employees heard was that saving money enabled local charities to do more great work for people in their communities. They worked hard and didn’t miss profitability targets for the following five years.

How can leaders learn what stories are being told? Wander around and engage with employees. They must listen more than they talk. They must ask what’s going well and what’s not – and ask for examples. These interactions will expose some of the stories that are prevalent in their workplace.

Leaders can also be proactive about stories they tell. They can discover stories of desired values and behaviors, and tell those, often.

Those powerful stories will reinforce their desired culture.

What do you think? What would a time analysis show in your current work and life responsibilities? What small changes will make the most positive impact for you and your team and family? Share your thoughts about this post/podcast in the comments section below.

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