It’s said that stories create cultures; they propagate the assumptions and beliefs throughout the group in question. But it is specifically stories that create culture or is it something else?
Before we answer this question it’s useful to have a definition of what we mean by ‘a story’. Here’s a definition I like from Annette Simmons latest book, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins.
“Story is a reimagined experience narrated with enough detail and feeling to cause your listeners’ imaginations to experience it as real.”
Hearing a story is the second-best way to gain experience and in many cases it’s the only available option. Sometimes it’s too dangerous to gain first hand experience or the opportunity to gain first hand experience never presents itself. So the idea that a story is reimagined experience is important and useful. And the impact of a story is heightened the more real it seems.
So imagine the following:
A group of colleagues gather around a meeting room table. The meeting hasn’t started and everyone is laughing and joking. Billy, a seasoned salesman, bursts into the room with a huge grin of his face.
“I’ve just come from the Sam Cook meeting [the CIO of a large government department]. They signed on the original price–they didn’t screw us down. We will make out quota,” Billy said. “And all we had to do was offer a service they were going to get anyway…. What they don’t know wont kill them right?”
The group cheers while slapping Billy on the back in congratulations.
What just happened here?
Was it the story that created the culture? Did Billy’s retelling of what happened with Sam create or reinforce the culture?
No, in this case the story is the trigger, but it’s the response to the story that shows everyone how we behave around here.
This is an important point for leaders. Leaders must be poised to lead a response to stories told. To disrupt a response if necessary. For leaders this is about self awareness and being aware of the stories being told (which means being able to identify stories) and observing how people respond–and being ready and willing to intervene.
In a complex environment it’s important to reinforce the behaviours you want and disrupt what’s unfavourable and if you want to change the culture of a group, start by changing the response to the stories being told.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:
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