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How Stories Strengthen Your Work Culture - or Not

You Can Ensure That Your Work Stories Are Inspiring

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Smiling business people reviewing paperwork in office
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Have you ever listened – really listened – to the stories that your employees tell in your workplace? Are they inspiring stories about the time the team worked hard and saved the customer? Are they inspiring stories about coworkers that created glory for the group? Do they talk about a constant conversation with customers that inspires the direction of product development, marketing, and the customer engagement teams?

Or, are your work stories more about complaining? The indeterminate they didn’t like my idea. They expected too much from me and failed to provide the tools and resources I needed to succeed. And, the perennially disempowering story about, “they wouldn’t let me,” whether the story is true or not, puts the kibosh to many employee dreams of autonomy and adding value.

Do your employees’ stories about work reinforce your desired work culture and tout the characteristics of your best employees? Or do the work stories present a picture of a work culture that you know will undermine both your organization’s success and your employees’ success.

Working with a client a few years ago, the employee stories were strikingly different from what the organization wanted to hear. Rather than talking about their work mission of charitable contributions, after a near bankruptcy, the employees talked about bad hiring decisions, poor spending practices, and the organization’s failure to prosecute employees who were stealing.

The stories grew worse when bankruptcy was averted and the manager promised that by the next year, everyone would be driving a red convertible. This was his way of saying that the company was doing much better. He thought his words would reassure jittery employees. The story had the opposite effect. The employees became fearful about the future of any organization he was leading. They thought he was delusional. The power of that one story undermined any of the concurrent employee stories about their financial recovery, their mission of service, and their constant community volunteering.

How Work Stories Shape Culture

The tone and the content of your work stories are powerful forces in shaping and strengthening your work culture. What your employees share with each other and talk about frequently becomes imprinted on the organizational mind. Just like the little voice in your head talks to you all day long, so the stories shared in the workplace form a substantial core of the employee experience.

And, inspiring work stories are even more significant for new employees. New employees listen to the work stories to learn about your culture and the work environment you provide for employees. New employees use work stories to cultivate and create expectations around their relationship with their new manager. What other employees tell you to expect and experience powerfully frames your own experience.

New employees, especially, find their thinking imperceptibly influenced by the work stories. Without awareness, they develop patterns of behavior and respond based on the expectations formulated by the stories, oftentimes not by the reality.

So, given that employees tell stories; work stories affect and shape workplace culture, often imperceptibly; and new employees are most influenced from day one by work stories that are inspiring – or not, what’s an employer to do? Can you stem the tide of employee negativity and reinforce the inspiring components of the work stories your employees tell?

Ensure That Your Work Stories Support Your Desired Work Environment

You can. Here is what you can do to ensure that your employee workplace stories are inspiring, enabling, and reinforce your desired work culture.

  • Discover what kind of work stories are rampant in your workplace. Listen carefully and ask employees what kinds of stories they hear and tell. This step is revealing as you will develop a picture of how work stories are currently shaping your culture. These are additional ways to assess the state of your current culture.

  • If you are unhappy about your workplace stories, make a plan with a cross-sectional team of your employees to change the stories. These are my recommended steps to change your corporate culture. In forming the team and paying attention to the stories, you have taken the first steps in changing your workplace stories. You have a team of people who are listening and aware of the power of stories in your culture. Following the steps recommended to change your workplace culture will take you to the goal of inspiring work stories. There are additional steps that are effective, too.

  • Tell stories. Make sure that you are telling positive, inspiring stories at any management and employee meetings that are regularly held in your company. Make a commitment as a management team to walk your talk and reinforce the culture with positive work stories.

  • Tie employee rewards and recognition to a powerfully positive story about the contribution. Write the story down and share it with the employee receiving recognition. Recognize the employee publicly by telling the story about his or her positive contribution. There is always a story when a manager wants to recognize an employee with a gift card or check. Make sure the story is told, written, and publicized. (On the plus side, other employees want to know what is necessary to gain recognition. Stories help illuminate the path.)

  • Weave stories of employee heroes and heroism into the company history in your handbook and new employee orientation and relive the moments at company events. Talk about the founding of the company and all of the milestone events along the way.

  • Make sure that managers and any employee who is mentoring new employees know about the importance of stories in influencing the career of a new employee. Make sure that these influencers tell stories about work that reinforce the qualities of the culture you want to create. Make work and employee stories a significant component in new employee orientation.

Concentrate on the power of work stories to inspire, enable, and reinforce your desired work culture. A change in the stories or building a culture that supports story telling will help your organization experience success. Your employee stories are part of the recruiting and retaining message that every employer of choice needs to cherish.

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