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Changing your organizational climate through storytelling

by Jen Wason

April 22 is Earth Day, a time for raising awareness of and concern for the environment and the links between pollution and public health. The conventional wisdom is that small, everyday actions can be meaningful for steering us all toward a healthier, more sustainable future.

As you think about the incremental changes you can make to improve our natural environment, also consider the potential toxicity of your organizational culture. High-performing organizations value and cultivate characteristics meaningful to a flourishing and sustainable organization, such as trust, collaboration, diversity of ideas, creativity and curiosity, freedom of expression, and a feeling of belonging.

Polluted cultures lack many of these qualities. Perhaps you can identify some of the following contaminants in your own organization:

  • Pervasive negativity
  • Cliques that breed cynicism or exclusivity
  • Managers playing favorites
  • Cattiness trumping kindness
  • Lack of communication
  • Poor conflict resolution
  • Confusion about company values
  • Resistance to change
  • Uncertainty about the future

Is your workplace suffering from some variety of these or other pollutants?

Organizational climate change

One of the best ways to know your culture is to listen to the stories people are telling about it.

Shaker associate Jensen Mecca has studied the ways stories influence perceptions of a culture. “A good temperature-taking mechanism is to listen to the types of stories being told about your company,” she says. What you hear about your culture can alert you if it’s becoming a hazardous waste site.

Anthropologists know that storytelling is a feature of every civilization, every culture. It is the way people share, interpret, and understand their experiences. Stories are effective methods for educating others because they are engaging and memorable in ways a list of facts are not. They are sometimes containers of our essential thoughts and feelings about something we can’t otherwise articulate.

What are the stories being told in your hallways and meeting rooms? What stories do your job candidates tell their families and friends? Websites such as Glassdoor, Hallway, Indeed, and Vault capture perceptions of your culture from outside your four walls, while employees express and reinforce perceptions in their personal interactions each day.

If you’re hearing a lot of complaining, you might have a brownfield on your hands. Maybe it’s time for a cleanup.

Storytelling to protect your environment

The stories being told about your organization might be the best reflection of its health, but they also are one of the most efficient ways to improve it.

“Storytelling is changing the message,” Mecca explains. “Be intentional about the stories you retell and encourage. Seek out those stories that illustrate what you want to embody.”  

Do you hear people complaining about communication? Are the stories that circulate ones that celebrate constructive collaborations or recount humiliations or arguments?

Are you just saying you have a culture that recognizes contributions and positive interactions? Or are you telling stories that actively celebrate contributions and positive interactions?

Mecca recalls a story told by one of Shaker’s executives at a recent company meeting. He was reflecting on observing employees and their families at a company event, remembering how he and another Shaker founding partner shared a moment of pride in the business’s growth and leading an effort that was supporting so many families.

“That moment really meant something to them,” Mecca says, explaining that the retelling of this story illustrated the company’s emphasis on the culture as not only family-like but genuinely family-oriented. She says it spoke louder than any company value statements or slogans about prioritizing family over work.

Create the events, moments, and experiences that will inspire the stories you want to be told about your organizational culture. And be deliberate about ensuring your practices align with your stories. Manage your cultural message by creating opportunities that create stories, such as by:

  • Recognizing effort
  • Honoring rites of passage
  • Celebrating significant milestones for individuals, groups, and the entire organization
  • Enabling interaction with leaders
  • Mentoring or providing other professional coaching or guidance

Collect good stories and spread them. Tell these stories yourself, find ways to encourage others to share them. Offer them up at meetings, put them in newsletters and emails. Provide a platform for others to tell their own stories. 

“Make sure people feel safe to share their stories,” Mecca reminds. Fostering positive interpersonal exchange, creative problem solving, and lively debates for how to do things better are all part of modeling the values that are the foundation of a healthy workplace environment.

You can be a good steward of your organizational culture by telling stories where there is evidence of positive change and using them to adjust course, as necessary, Mecca says. Like in every culture, the stories you and others tell about your organization are part of what defines its legacy, what leads it to where it’s going next.