How storytelling can help shape your company culture
As humans, we’re governed by our emotions and create narratives to help us understand what’s going on around us. To change people’s behaviour, you have to win them over emotionally, which is why storytelling is the secret weapon of culture change in any organisation.
Even before the global pandemic crashed into our lives, organisations had been going through a huge amount of change, largely driven by technology, changing consumer expectations and behaviours, regulation, and the forces of a crowded marketplace where competing businesses are jostling for market share.
Stories are the currency of culture and our understanding of the world in which we live.
With change and transformation comes an urgent demand for new ways of working. Customer loyalty is increasingly driven by a desire to buy from businesses that are creating a force for good in society and for the environment. Purpose and values have been elevated on the corporate agenda, as is diversity and inclusion, with new generations of workers gravitating to these more than ever before. Social norms are changing, which is driving huge shifts in workplace culture – one of the primary tenets of attracting and retaining talent. So adapting swiftly to change is critical to creating high-performing organisations and gaining competitive advantage.
We are governed by our emotions
Culture change is never easy, because we’re dealing with human beings. We’re asking them to change their behaviours. As humans, though, we are tribal, social beings, wired to uphold the status quo within our ‘tribe’. Governed by our emotions, we can’t be ‘told’ what to do. The fight or flight instinct will inhibit our ability to embrace uncertainty and volatility, where the fear factor of ‘this might harm me’ can prevent us from adopting new behaviours and ways of working.
Instead, we search for stories and create narratives to help us validate our identity as a group and preserve what we know and are familiar with. Stories are the currency of culture and our understanding of the world in which we live, and we use them to satisfy our craving for meaning and make sense of what is going on around us.
Storytelling can transform culture
There are, however, ways of addressing resistance to change by resetting an internal organisational narrative that can cause this resistance. Storytelling – the same technique that prevents people from changing their behaviours – can actually be used as a technique to shift mindsets, build belief in a different kind of future, win hearts and minds, and make change happen. Here are five ways in which storytelling can transform culture.
1. Create a compelling change narrative
A purpose or change narrative will underpin and provide the context and rationale for organisational culture change. A clear, simple and emotionally compelling narrative that describes, honestly and credibly, the journey we need to go on, what’s driving the change, with a clear call to action and what success will look like can act as a powerful catalyst for change. When people understand the ‘why’ – not just the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ – emphasising that ‘we’re all in this together,’ and ‘what’s in it for me?’ – how they frame the way in which they work and what they do, can rapidly change. We need to feel we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
This narrative needs to be owned, championed and constantly role modelled by leaders, day-in, day-out, not just articulated through artful presentations. They need to link everything that’s going on in the organisation back to the narrative to help people make sense of the many initiatives, workstreams and projects going on, showing why they matter.
Harvesting emotive stories of how our colleagues have risen to a challenge and overcome it by demonstrating certain behaviours can influence others and encourage them to follow.
2. Create a powerful visual identity for your narrative
Bring the story to life with a strong visual identity and a ‘rallying cry’ that is repeated time and time again. Many of us respond well to creative, visual storytelling, as it can enhance the emotional connection that is vital for winning hearts and minds, and can reinforce the sense of identity that we search for. This visual identity can also be used to link key messages and initiatives back to the narrative, highlighting their relevance and fit.
3. Upskill your leaders to become inspiring storytellers
How leaders interpret the narrative for their organisation for their teams is essential. They need to be able to see its relevance for their part of the organisation, and translate a top-line corporate story into one that their team can relate to and explore the personal role they can play in achieving success, replacing ‘victim status’ with ‘hero status’. Leaders can win trust and empathy by telling their own, personal story, complete with struggle and endeavour. We are drawn to the struggles of our fellow humans, and the empathy-inducing chemicals of oxytocin and dopamine that storytelling can stimulate and enhance our desire to support and nurture them.
4. Share small stories of success and achievement
Harvesting emotive stories of how our colleagues have risen to a challenge and overcome it by demonstrating certain behaviours can influence others and encourage them to follow. These ‘small,’ human stories of local heroes can be linked back to the main change narrative, keeping it alive, validating its existence and reinforcing its call to action. They can also provide valuable insights into the organisation, which can be used as data needed to plan and execute change. David Attenborough’s narrative of saving the planet is a famous example, sparking thousands of small stories of human endeavour to preserve our environment, each one encouraging others to follow suit.
5. Storytelling activates the limbic side of our brain
Stories of real people achieving great things helps us to imagine ourselves in similar situations. A story can light up several areas of the brain – areas that control imagination, colour, movement and language processing. Unconsciously we are participating in the story, able to relate to it. We are emotionally involved on a human level, and will remember far more about the content and consequences of the story than dry data or abstract facts.
Storytelling can penetrate deep into our psyche when it comes to change. Its power to unleash energy, pride, passion and to change the way we act and behave is proven and inspiring. It’s the secret weapon of culture change.
Interested in this topic? Read Creating a company culture: a collaborative storytelling approach.
Alison is Co-Founder and Director at culture change consultancy The Storytellers. She spent her early career in B2C PR and marketing before setting up The Storytellers in 2003.
Alison has spent the last 12 years working with business leaders of large, complex, multi-national organisations to help them use storytelling to make change...