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Data: Story: Culture

You may be asking yourself what these three have in common. If you are, you are not alone; few make the critical connection between them.

Let’s unpack this

The story within a business is essential because it tells people “who” you are, not only “what” you do. It gives people a sense of the company as if it were a person. Your strategic narrative (your story) is as important as your strategy. Some say it is even more important than the strategy. I tend to agree πŸ™‚.

Igniting your employee’s passion comes from the story rather than merely strategy. It is the story of why you exist, who you are, and why what you do matters that move people beyond the job description. Daniel Kahneman says, “No one ever made a decision based on only a number; they need a story.” It is the story that results in the discretionary effort that a clinical performance metric cannot measure.

It is the difference that makes the difference.

Strategic narrative

The world we live in is inundated with data coming from everywhere. Seldom are you involved in a business dialogue without the word data coming up? We all have data, we have access to data, and we generate data; however, important to note is that even this all-important “data” everyone wants, is rendered meaningless outside of a story. Unless data finds meaning within the story told about the data, it, too, is rendered essentially meaningless.

Regarding your strategic narrative, the words shaping this narrative and all the narratives flowing from it are very valuable data pointsβ€” data points seldom given the attention they possibly deserve.

So, what exactly is strategic narrative?

Narrative provides answers to some of the following important questions:

  1. Who are you as a company
  2. How do you believe value is created?
  3. What do you value about people & relationships?
  4. Why do you exist & what makes you unique?

Your story (aka narrative) is not about what you do for people; it is about what you do WITH them.

Employee stories

Your company culture truly lives and finds meaning in the stories employees tell. When the stories they tell align with the strategic narrative, companies often benefit from a culture that strongly aligns with and enables the execution of the strategy. This is because the stories told across the company inspire the actions required to deliver on the strategy.

Disaster often follows when employees’ stories are misaligned with the strategic narrative or are not heard. In the cases of Apollo 1, Columbia, and Challenger, all disasters in which astronauts lost their lives, employees were well aware of the issues; however, they were too afraid to risk saying something (this is a culture problem – the resulting employee story was that speaking up was a huge risk).

Where concerns were raised, these were ignored or downplayed (another culture problemβ€”the story being that employees’ opinions are not heard or valued). These disasters were not necessarily a result of ineffective strategy; they were primarily due to cultural issues (the stories employees told, believed, and lived in resulted in loss of life). This is how powerfully story can impact organisational performance.

Data points

People live in the stories they tell about their employers, and words are the data points making up the stories floating around your organisation. It’s these stories that shape, craft, and influence your culture. If you want to know more about the culture, listen to the stories being told in the canteen, around the coffee stations, the corridor chat, and these days, all that online chatter.

Words are key data points, and a leader’s words powerfully impact the stories people share β€” the ones that either inspire action or perpetuate inaction throughout your organisation.

Strategy, story and culture

If we are lucky, a clear strategy guides us in understanding what our jobs mean and how our actions contribute to executing this strategy. However, it is the culture that makes our moments within a company “meaningful.” Yes, there is a difference.

I may know exactly what my role as a sales executive means in the larger company strategy; however, more than this knowledge is needed to provide a meaningful experience. For one, the culture within which I execute my duties contributes to meaningfulness. The stories my peers and I tell about our experiences shape and inform culture, contributing to or eroding “meaningfulness.”

So, let’s briefly unpack the power of story in your organisational culture journey.

Subcultures exist within organisations, and these can be identified by listening to the stories people tell about the company, their business unit or department, and their leaders. Often, the stories told about one (the company narrative) vary from the stories told about the other. For example, the company leadership says they care about employee well-being; however, my direct line manager definitely does not.

Subcultures are very often centered around the different leaders across a business. Amongst the various data points collected in business, considering the words used to populate the stories told within these various sub-cultures offers valuable insights into the probability of achieving the strategic aspirations of the organisation.

When the story employees live in speaks about leaders not valuing employees, not being interested in their development, their opinions, their views, the probability of these same employees going the extra mile to meet sales targets, excel at client service, or pay attention to the detail required when analyzing reports is extremely low. If you are lucky, they will do barely enough not to get fired.

Leaders of the future

In Authentic Conversations Jamie and Maren Showkeir share that leaders of the future will need to know how to engage in authentic conversations and since we have all grown up in a culture where conversation is all too often viewed as a tool for getting what we want, for winning others over to our point of view, leaders need to be aware of the dangerous subtlety of manipulation and the importance of language and intentions as the drivers of their actions.

The above merely touches the tip of the iceberg regarding the influence leaders’ words and their resulting stories have on the overall organisational culture. What you say as a leader matters, and yes, your actions also matter; however, what you say and how your words leave people feeling when you leave the room are important data points that weave together to inform the real organisational culture.

Just saying

So, without getting deep and dark about the topic, we should, for just a moment, re-consider the role words play as key data points scattered across your organisations, effortlessly weaving the fabric of culture.

Essentially, companies are spoken into being. Someone or a group of someones has an idea, they speak about it, they take action, and they continue speaking until, eventually, the outcome is an organisation.

This organisation is then filled with humans who speak about what needs to be achieved by this entity known as the “organisation.” Employees then start living within the stories told about the organisation, and words continue to be data points shaping this ever-evolving organisation.

It’s within this context that I pose the question: “Are everyday words used across the organisation not important data points worth considering when thinking about culture, success and sustainability ?”

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