Blog by Kathy Miller Perkins, www.millerconsultants.com
Our personal stories are powerful. When talking about myself with others, I might recount a particularly exciting experience such as the time I served as a foreign exchange student in Thailand when I had never been away from home before and had never flown on an airplane. Or I might describe my life with my family and my three dogs, who never fail to amuse me. As I tell these stories, I am sharing who I am – both how I see myself and how I want others to see me. Likewise, when I want to get to know someone, I usually start by asking them to tell me about themselves. I might ask about where they live, their families, their professions, their interests among other things. And I am not merely collecting facts. Instead I am listening to their stories because the tales they tell communicate their character.
So too the stories that we tell within our organizations and to the public about our companies communicate identity. And Identity is the foundation upon which the organization’s culture rests. In my work as an organizational psychologist, I am often asked to work with the clients to assess their organizational culture. While I have a variety of method for carrying out this task, I find that listening to the stories they tell is among the best. And all companies have their own stories or myths which reveal how they view themselves. And, in turn, their perceptions of themselves influence how they show up in the world.
Not too long ago, I worked with a large organization in New York. To get a feel for their culture, I asked them to tell me stories about themselves when they were at their best. They became quite animated as they spoke of how they rallied during the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. As I asked them questions about these stories they filled in details about their smooth working relationships under these extreme circumstances. And they noted that their interactions aren’t nearly as smooth in their day-to-day work world. We could all agree that this organization had a hero culture that worked well for them under crisis but not so well in more stable times.
Next, I asked them to tell some stories about incidents when they, as an organization, were at their worst. One of the stories I heard was about a cross-departmental project where people in one group hid information from those in another, presumably to maintain a more powerful position, or because they thought the other group would slow down their progress. This part of the exercise wasn’t nearly so much fun as the first. Yet the stories were colorful and revealed clearly some of the cracks in their day-to-day culture that made them vulnerable as an organization.
By analyzing how they acted at their best and at their worst they began to identify the conditions that brought out the good and the bad behaviors. They began to seek new ways of viewing themselves and their work. They sought to switch from “we are at our best only when in crisis,” to “we can create conditions in our day-to-day world that will bring out the best in all of us.” They were changing their story.
About this time, a new leader entered the organization. He brought the employees together in a “Town Hall” and told his own stories. He began by telling anecdotes about his life and his work, followed by his vision for the organization. He claimed that he considered his work to be a calling – not just a job. And he challenged the employees to reconsider how they viewed their own work. He told them that “values count,” and described how his values influence his life every day. He ended by making the following commitment:
“I will give my time, energy and commitment to helping us become a world-class organization. I honestly believe that we can become a best in class standard against which other similar organizations can measure themselves.”
I cannot relay the conclusion of this story because my assignment ended shortly after the Town Hall. However, when I left, I felt certain that this company could change. To do so required them to tell a new story about who they are and who they want to be. And I took away some powerful lessons: Just as we must change our own narratives when we seek to change ourselves, organizations can begin to change their cultures by creating their own new stories.