Company culture is built upon the stories people tell about it. Cleverly crafted memes shared at Town Hall style meetings and posters on the wall don’t build culture. Shining a light on people’s actions when they reflect the desired culture does.
When setting culture, most companies identify a handful of values aligned with their strategy, communicate them around the organisation and build them into performance reviews. Yet, despite defining and communicating a clear set of values, people’s actions often fail to reflect them.
Why are the values not being lived and what can you do about it?
Recently, we got a new puppy, Rosie. She’s adorable. However, at ten-weeks-old she loved to play-bite with us in exactly the same way she’d been doing with her Mum and siblings. Rosie’s behaviour was a problem because her tiny puppy teeth were needle sharp and when she nipped us, it hurt. Besides, we wanted to make sure she knew better as she grew older.
A trick people often suggest is pulling your hand away quickly, pretending to cry and squealing ouch so that your puppy realises she’s hurt you and learns to be gentle. After all, that’s how puppies learn from their siblings. So, we feigned upset but, it didn’t work.
Rosie thought our reactions where part of the game and her nipping continued.
We hired Liz, a puppy trainer to help us calm Rosie down and stop her nipping. Firstly, she pointed out how the attention we were giving Rosie for whatever she was doing encouraged her do more of that activity. Whether we were praising Rosie for eating her food and peeing outside or saying no to her for mouthing at the tassels on a throw or nipping our hands, it was all attention.
Whatever behaviours we shone light on expanded.
Liz advised us to reward Rosie’s good behaviour and quickly redirect Rosie’s attention when she was doing things we wanted to discourage. When Rosie did what was asked of her, Liz would say “now, pay her,” and we’d reward Rosie with treats.
We’re all like Rosie in that we do things that reward us and avoid or drop things that are either painful or unrewarding.
Every leader knows the importance of encouraging people to behave in particular ways by acknowledging them when they do so – otherwise how will they know what you expect?
So, why would we think that sharing the values with people at a Town Hall or conference and promoting them with internal messaging would be sufficient to build culture?
In the same way that telling Rosie what to do and not to do changed nothing – simply broadcasting the values doesn’t necessarily lead to action.
Our new approach led to Rosie changing her behaviour within days and by the time she was 12 weeks old she was calmer and rarely nipped.
So, how can you ensure the values are lived within your company or team?
Building the values into people’s performance reviews is helpful but how will they know what good looks like?
People’s actions reflect the values because values drive behaviour. However, everyone has their own interpretation of what a particular value looks like when it’s enacted.
When values are articulated as big words with broad interpretations they’re too vague for most people to know what’s meant. It’s crucial to show people what those values look like when they are lived within the company.
The meaning of a value is always specific to a company. For example, one company had a value of ‘innovation’ and when it came to the crunch they were incredibly risk averse. What they meant by innovation was; something that other companies had tried and tested but which was new for them.
Words are interpreted in vastly different ways by different people so it’s important to spell out what you mean.
Once you call a spade an earth moving implement, people no longer know whether you mean; a worm, a digger or something else.
Stories enable you to call a spade a spade by illustrating what your values look like when they’re enacted within your company or team.
It’s fascinating is to see that most companies have similar values and these are often driven by what’s on trend.
Back in the 1990’s, total quality management (TQM) was a big thing and it involved inverting the hierarchy triangle to empower employees at the frontline.
These days, big buzz words are agility, diversity, innovation, customer focus, wellbeing and sustainability. But, these words mean completely different things when it comes down to acting upon them in different companies and even within different teams.
Showing people what the values look like by shining a light on great examples of people living them is a powerful way to embed culture.
Storytelling is the perfect vehicle to bring those shining examples of your values in action. Through stories, everyone can see the behaviours that underpin a value and what it looks like when it’s lived within that organisation or team.
Telling stories is also a brilliant way to reward people by shining light on what they have done. Whatever you illuminate is going to grow within your organisation.
So, what kinds of stories can you tell to illustrate the values being lived in your company?
Here are 10 examples of themes for the kinds of stories you can discover, craft and share within your organisation to build culture;
- Leanne’s day spent with customers led to the team’s next big idea (an innovation/customer-focus story)
- Nadine’s team cut 20% off product launch time (an agility story)
- John’s team cut plastic usage by 30% (a CSR/innovation story)
- Adam went the extra mile for a customer (a customer-focus story)
- What Amanda did in her first hundred days as Head of Marketing (a story with a full-house of values)
- Our project supporting more girls choosing STEM subjects at school (a diversity/CSR story)
- Our CSR project changed the lives of people living in [ ] (a CSR story)
- Kai went from exhaustion to creating a work/life balance (a wellbeing story)
- Vanessa built an award-winning team (a story that may include several values)
- Sam discovered smart-technology to streamline his team’s workflow (an agility story)
What people want to hear is the journey behind whatever story themes you select. Your stories will depend upon your values and on how you want people to interpret them.
The number of story themes that can illustrate each value is infinite. So, you can continuously find stories within your company or team that bring the culture to life.
Your stories will act as powerful culture builders provided they reflect the values and engage and inspire people to take action themselves. Be sure to select the right stories, craft them well and bring them to life using great storytelling skills.
If you’d like our help with discovering, crafting and telling stories that engage, inspire and move people, to embed culture (or for other purposes) we’d love to help you. We can also train your people to identify stories, craft them and tell them well. And we can create story champions within your organisation.
If you’d like our help to build a culture of storytelling within your organisation, please get in touch.