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If you want to change your culture, change your stories

Beverley Glick

I often hear corporate L&D people say, ‘We need to be better at storytelling.’ But what does this mean in practice? Often, it means that they want their salespeople to tell stories to help them build better customer relationships. Or they want people who were previously working behind the scenes to become more customer-facing. Another key outcome is that they want to start changing their organisational culture.

This makes sense. Why? Because, when well-structured and well told, stories are all about transformation. They appeal to the heart as well as the head and, if people can find themselves in a story, they will buy into it in a way that’s much harder to do if their organisation only shares a mission statement or strategy document. And with so many industries currently facing disruption, culture change has become increasingly important to the bottom line.

Focus on emotion, not process

So, how do you create culture change through storytelling? Let me start with an example that I’ve experienced myself, during a Ginger training with leaders from a large banking group. It happened at the end of a Storytelling Mastery workshop, when participants were invited to share the story they’d been working on in small groups with the entire cohort. This particular individual had a story to tell about the shift from being process-focused to customer-focused. It was about an older woman who had reported a house fire to her insurer (his company). Thankfully, they were able to send a broker to her door on the very same day.

Wouldn’t a customer expect good service like this from an insurer? Yes, of course, but it’s the way he told the story – with specificity, telling us the woman’s pet dog woke her up after the fire started, almost certainly saving her life; and with emotional detail, reminding his colleagues that ‘we had an insurance broker at her door on the worst day of her life. We were there for her. Because when we get that call, we have to be ready.’

This story injected so much emotion and humanity into a story that, if it had simply been about the process of claiming insurance, could have been bland and unaffecting. One of the senior leadership team actually started crying after listening to this story – because they realised how important their work is and how they make a difference to people’s lives. This is the kind of story that’s resonant enough to change a culture.

The sacred bundle

Maybe you don’t think you have a story like this in your organisation. I’d urge you to think again. It might be helpful to look at the work of management consultant Peg Neuhauser, who identified a set of stories that define organisational culture and values. She calls them the ‘sacred bundle’, inspired by the Native American tradition of tribes that carried a leather bundle of sacred artefacts representing key moments in the tribe’s history.

Neuhauser’s sacred bundle of organisational stories includes the following:

  • How we started: The organisation’s origin story.
  • Our people: Stories about employees whose skill or commitment demonstrate the organisation’s values.
  • Why we do what we do: Stories that show the organisation’s purpose in action.
  • What we learned in defeat: What the organisation learned from its failures.
  • How we succeeded: How the organisation succeeded against the odds.
  • How the world will be better after we succeed: How the organisation is contributing to solving a problem that will have a national or global impact.

This is a really useful framework for organisations to use when they’re thinking about how to create culture change through storytelling, which is all about sharing an authentic, emotionally affecting story that every stakeholder can buy into.

Mind your metaphors

Another important aspect to consider is the language you use to tell your stories. In ‘The Story-Driven Organisation’ (2007), David B Drake and Brian Lanahan state that there are three root metaphors commonly found in organisations as the basis for the language they use to position themselves in the world and to their employees:

  • the war metaphor: consumer targets, competitive strategy, winning market share
  • the science metaphor: testing concepts, measuring results, segmenting consumers
  • the machine metaphor: ROI, outsourcing, reorganisation, human capital.

These metaphors have their place, but it’s important to recognise that they are ‘distancing’ metaphors that make it harder for organisations to tell connective stories. Blake and Lanahan believe that the language of story has a lot more to offer as a root metaphor for organisations. In their definition, story is ‘the description of a series of events that conveys meaning’. And it’s through our connection to the characters in the story (ie the older woman and her dog in my previous example) that we experience its meaning (ie ‘we make a difference in people’s lives’).

In Your Own Words

This brings me neatly to my own book, In Your Own Words: Unlock the Power of Your Life Stories to Influence, Inspire and Build Trust, which is primarily about the connective power of personal storytelling. In it, I outline a process I’ve called ‘compiling a life dictionary’, which helps leaders identify significant words from different stages of their life, which then become access points to their most meaningful and memorable stories.

Organisations may not have life stages in the same way as people do, but I think the dictionary principle holds. How would you answer the following questions?

  • What are the significant words used by the people in your organisation?
  • What are the stories behind those words?
  • Do these stories use distancing metaphors?
  • Could you use your company values as access points to your most meaningful and memorable stories?
  • What are the entries in your organisational dictionary?
  • Do they tell a story about the organisation’s past rather than pointing to its future?
  • What are the significant words used to describe your work?
  • What’s the story that will help people buy into a culture change?

When it comes down to it, if you want to change your culture, ditch the distancing metaphors, focus on emotion and humanity – and a resonant set of stories is bound to follow.

Beverley Glick

An award-winning public speaker and storytelling expert, Beverley is an experienced lead trainer who specialises in TED-style speaker coaching and training.

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