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How stories create culture

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 17, 2008
Filed in Business storytelling

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:

2 Responses to “How stories create culture”

  1. Galba Bright of Tune up your EQ Says:

    Hello Shawn:
    I found this very helpful. I recently told a story during a presentation. One of the participants interpreted it in a very different way to the rest of those present. I challenged him and reiterated my intended meaning.
    Your article has helped me to get a deeper insight into why I did what I did. Thank you.

  2. Bill Says:

    Stories definitely create culture. In your illustration above, there was a culture which this story confirmed already existed. The group responded in sync with the essential values and beliefs of the story. They expressed their culture. Leadership chooses to respond to embrace or change the direction and values of the status quo culture. Sometimes leadership is relationally expensive. To respond differently than the prevailing culture may cause isolation. The leader will probably do well to tell a different story, one of integrity and valuing the customer and the net positive effect that will have on the business in time.

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