Transforming Company Culture through Storytelling

March 6, 2014 Darcy Jacobsen

StorybookThe beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers used to carry a piece of paper around in his pocket. On it was a quote: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.”

Stories are one of the most powerful emotional currencies we humans possess. They have been a fundamental and influential part of the human experience since we developed language. They move people to feel, and they move people to act.

At work, stories take the form of narratives, conversations and anecdotes that connect us with the narrator and the subjects and broaden our pool of knowledge. “When you share a story, you will spark a story,” said consultant Thaler Pekar in a lecture at Stanford University, “That is the power of story: it is an emergent form of communication, possessing the ability to tap into the experiences of your listener. You can connect seemingly abstract, new information to your listener’s existing web of knowledge.”

According to expert David Snowden, academics have two definitions of what a story is:

  • The Story Feature: which requires any story to communicate some form of causal resolution of a problem.
  • The Structural-Affect: which requires the addition of meaning and significance for the audiences.

Great recognition uses storytelling in both of these ways. Consider this example of an effective message of recognition:

Jenny, thank you for staying late yesterday to put together a slide deck for our client presentation. It was filled with impressive statistics based on their business model. Because of your hard work and thoughtful analysis, the meeting went off like a dream. The client was very impressed with your thorough understanding of their business and so was I! This is a fantastic start for our future relationship with them. Thank you for your dedication and commitment to quality!

This message tells a clear story. Jenny is the central character, supported by the giver of recognition and the client. We can see Jenny in our minds’ eye working late and we have a visual sense of the happy clients in the meeting. The message recounts exactly what Jenny did to meet the challenge and achieve success… and explains exactly what the significance of that success is.  The moral of the story is that hard work and thoughtful analysis lead to client happiness and business success.

Best practices tell us that the more specific messages of appreciation are, the more impact they have. This goes double when they tell an affective (and therefore effective) story.

This relationship between stories and recognition is a two-way street. Social recognition is also an ideal vehicle for disseminating those stories throughout your organization, and harnessing their power to shape and develop your organizational culture.

Stories, says Snowdon, provide “a non-intrusive, organic means of producing sustainable cultural change; conveying brands and values [and] transferring complex tacit knowledge.” We use stories to make sense of our environment. They make us care. They provide a shared context for mutual understanding of events and issues that impact us. And they inspire us to change our point of view.

David Boje from Loyola University agrees. Stories, he says, “are part of an organization-wide information-processing network. Bits and pieces of organization experience are recounted socially throughout the firm to formulate […] collective accounts that will serve as precedent for individual assumption, decision, and action. This is the institutional memory system of the organization.”

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“Storytelling, suggests Boje, “can be a useful tool for managers trying to cope with rapid change. Training managers to be storytellers may thus result in training them to be more effective in organization”

So how can you and your managers use storytelling more effectively in your recognition moments? Here are five tips:

  • Make recognition social in your company – If others cannot see and share in the story, it cannot influence your culture at large. Make sure you are publishing recognition moments onto your companies’ internal social platform or feed.
  • Make sure your messages include stories – “Thanks for all you do” is not recognition—it is a platitude. When you thank your colleagues and employees make sure that you are including a short narrative of just what they did that was so fantastic. This will help them recall (and replicate) the effort they expended, relive their success, and help others to emulate their effort.
  • Make sure your messages have a “moral” – Capture both aspects of storytelling by showing not only what happened that was worthy of recognition—but why it was so important and what it means in the big picture. What was the impact of that behavior that made it so meaningful? What were the results? How do they connect to your organizational goals and values?
  • Tap into organizational memory – Make sure, when you are doing reflective recognition such as years of service awards, that stories are adequately captured and presented. Often a new manager won’t know the stories that make a milestone so poignant, but peers and other leaders have a rich store of anecdotes and memories to make the moment meaningful. Be sure the right people are included in these types of recognition.
  • Make the employee the main character – Be sure that the recipient is front and center in recognition, and avoid gimmicky schemes like leaderboards or gamification that dilute the story by making it about the giver.

When used correctly, stories can be a powerful tool for managing culture and increasing the affective commitment of your employees. How are you using storytelling in your organization?

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