Advising senior leaders on the topic of organizational culture for the last fifteen plus years has provided me with a multitude of opportunities to examine the ways in which groups of people organize themselves to accomplish their work and to achieve their mission. There are a wide variety of methods that I use when helping clients to understand the cultures of their organizations. One of these methods is engaging members of a client organization in order to listen to and attempt to make meaning of the stories that are told.
Stories have served a critical purpose in organizing groups of people for thousands of years. Stories are engaging ways to educate members of a group about what is valued by the group. What the group expects from its members. What gets rewarded and what gets people punished. Stories spark different areas of our brains than other forms of communication and this is why they have, and continue to be, utilized to share important ideas amongst and across groups of people.
Stories, due to their unique contextual factors, tend to reinforce the belief that each is a special, one-of-a-kind thing. Stories are not the only organizational phenomenon that foster the belief that organizations and their cultures are unique and special snowflakes but, in reality, organizational cultures and the stories that are shared within them share many commonalities in terms of structure, delivery, and ultimate purpose. This is what researchers Martin, Feldman, Hatch, & Sitkin refer to as the uniqueness paradox.
Here’s an example to clarify.
I worked with the chief executive of a large, government agency several years ago on a long-term organizational transformation effort. For the sake of the example, let’s call him Bill. Over the course of many months, we had an opportunity to spend quite a bit of time together and he often shared his experiences in life and work to help illustrate points he was trying to make.
One story Bill told me and others on multiple occasions during my time with him was how he had started in the organization in an entry-level position and, over a period of decades, worked his way up to the highest post in the organization. His story was uniquely his. There was only one him. He was in a very unique operating context and time in history that no one else would ever emulate.
Unique? Yes and no.
For all intents and purposes, Bill’s story was truly unique. It gave him pride to share it because it reinforced his belief that he was truly unique. Bill’s claim to the uniqueness of his story is where the paradox lies. The uniqueness paradox comes into play because this story, really serving as a manifestation of the culture of the organization, is one of seven common story types that are told in organizations- Can the Little Person Rise to the Top? More on this in a bit.
When examining the many facets of an organizational culture, we are looking at the observable manifestations of the underlying beliefs and assumptions (the culture) that are held to be true about how work should be done. The way in which the organization was founded and evolved, the physical layout or décor of the workspace, the way in which some professional subcultures use the claim of unique skills and competence to afford themselves a level to freedom from the scrutiny of others are all other ways in which cultural manifestations can lead us to claim uniqueness from other organizations. Therein lies the paradox.
Let’s get back to organizational stories.
Martin, Feldman, Hatch, & Sitkin’s research into organizational stories yielded some truly fascinating findings. They found seven common types of organizational stories that people tell in a variety of differently organizational contexts. These story types may feel familiar to you as you recollect the stories you have told or have been told over the course of your professional life.
- Can the Little Person Rise to the Top? Calling back to the earlier example of the story that Bill shared about his professional journey, this common story type can send multiple messages to people who hear it about the value the organization puts in career opportunities, signals about how the organization takes care of its own, and it may reinforce a message about how hard work and loyalty will be rewarded.
- Is the Big Boss Human? The researchers suggest that these types of common stories each have three distinct parts. The story establishes the high level or role of the protagonist (CEO, President, etc.). Next, the main character in the story is presented with an opportunity to perform an act that will show his or her equality with the lower-level members of the organization. Finally, the character either does the act or does not. Depending on which way the story goes, it reinforces messages about how the organization looks at hierarchy, equality, and the relationship between job title and special treatment.
- Will I Get Fired? These organizational stories tend to involve organizations that find themselves in situations where layoffs may become a reality. Those affected by the firings play a role in these stories as do those in management who must make the decisions about if, and who, may need to go. These stories typically then move on to what decision was ultimately made and how it was handled. Did leaders find a way to cut other costs to protect the workforce? Did they mandate that middle manager immediately terminate ten percent of the staff? These stories also share multiple messages about how leaders view their relationship to staff or, ultimately, what value the organization truly puts in its talent.
- Will the Organization Help Me When I Have to Move? These common organizational stories tend to focus on employees who are frequently asked to move throughout their employment and how the organization supports or fails to support, them and their families throughout the process and whatever personal difficulties the employee faces. Again, an opportunity to showcase to people what values, beliefs, and assumptions are held within the organization.
- How Will the Boss React to a Mistake? These stories involve an employee and a manager, or managers, who find out about a mistake that has been made by the employee. The way in which the leaders react to the situation sends very clear messages to others about how the organization views failure or how to “survive” if you make a mistake. These messages drive very clear behavior in organizations. Do we share our mistakes and failures knowing that it will be used as a learning opportunity or do we sweep our mistakes under the rug, hoping that no one will take notice?
- How Will the Organization Deal with Rule-Breaking? Stories of this type seem to follow a particular pattern where a person of authority does something to make their authority known, the person of authority breaks a rule, an employee of lower status challenges the authority figure, the authority figure does or does not continue to break the rule, and in many stories, the employee is either complimented or fired. Again, these stories serve to align staff around how the organization views status, the applicability of rules to high-status individuals, and whether enforcing the rules with everyone will or will not be tolerated in the organization.
- How Will the Organization React to Obstacles? This story was found to be the most common story type shared in the organizations that were researched and there tend to be a great many variations in these types of stories. These stories can be about any person at any level who faces a challenge and either, ultimately, solves the challenge or determines that it cannot be fixed. Each story, an opportunity to reinforce messages to listeners about the ways in which work gets done in that particular culture.
Stories are just one of many cultural manifestations that help to reinforce to members of an organization how to survive and thrive. While it may feel good for us to want to find ways to see ourselves and our organizations as totally unique in the world, and there are always contextual details that make this easy to believe, when it comes to the topic of organizational culture, regardless of what your organization produces, it is a collection of people with varying skills, experiences, and views coming together to accomplish something together. The culture of the organization serves as the ‘glue’ that helps to educate members on the ‘right way’ to achieve those.
If we acknowledge that the uniqueness paradox does in fact exist, we must then ask ourselves what we can learn from other groups to increase our own performance? Further, what common aspects of organizational culture are associated with high-performing organizations? The topic of organizational culture is complex, deep, and ‘sticky’ which is why many leaders struggle with where to start but there are ways to dig beneath the surface to understand your culture and the impact it is having on the behavior of you and your employees. Organizational stories are merely one place to begin looking.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
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