Boiling culture down to its DNA with little stories

I love the opening line of Darryl Scott’s song My Father’s House: “I was born and raised in my father’s house, can catching rain in the kitchen.”  One line – about two-thirds of a Tweet in length – suggests a large, textured story of a mother-less home that’s not just broken, but permanently unfixed. 

I love it because it’s a great example of two things.  First, the most powerful way of understanding is to let our minds do what they most want to do with information – assemble it into stories.  You can’t hear Scott’s line without building a story around it.  And second, a short, simple story can contain a lot of information. 

Researchers say the power of story comes from four factors: they mirror the way we think (which is in narrative structures), they define who we are, they build and preserve a group’s sense of community and they have universal meaning.  That’s why they are so potent as translators of any organization’s culture.

Think about little stories that say big things about your workplace.  I remember early on in my tenure at D&E hearing about a meeting with a new client in which the client CEO wadded up a draft of a document one of my colleagues had written and threw it at him in front of our CEO, who politely resigned on the spot.  It happened over 25 years ago and I wasn’t there, but it still says something about our culture to me.  The magic formula our founders created was to have sought-after professionals drawn to the chance to do great, sought-after client work and vice versa, in an environment of mutual respect.  Letting the wrong kind of clients abuse us would eventually have chased away the professionals that were necessary to keep the kind of clients we were built for.

I also remember a client CEO who, after hearing his general counsel’s strategy for litigating some workplace cancer suits, told him that the company was responsible for the illnesses of these former employees and if they didn’t take ownership of that responsibility they’d be letting down every employee.  It’s a client I was drawn to keep working with as I moved from account management to the CEO’s seat and that’s the story I’ve used to describe the company ever since.

I have another client whose CEO had a marble bathroom installed in his office the year the company barely missed the earnings goal needed to pay employee bonuses.  It’s a story that’s still told there 10 years later.  Fortunately, the CEOs who came before and after him are the kind that generate positive stories, so Mr. Marble Bathroom is seen as a leader the culture spat out.

I started my career as a writer of short fiction and magazine features, and have always been attracted to stories.  One of the things that energizes me as a communication consultant is helping companies and leaders find and tell their stories.  And I love to hear the little, powerful stories that people tell to describe their work cultures.  Do you have one?

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