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What Stories Shape Your Company Culture?

Lori Darley November 28, 2018

Veronica has been the team leader at an educational content development company for three years, having worked her way up from product manager. She loves coming into work, an open space covered with bright chairs and tables and the elementary-school posters the company makes. Most of all, she loves reading the storybooks and textbooks her company produces, working with illustrators and writers as they find new ways to inspire kids. She loves her team and is deeply committed to serving as a conscious leader for all stakeholders.

Yet, every day Veronica walks by the glass door of the company’s CEO, Martin. While most of the company works across bright red, blue, and yellow resin chairs and tables on the main floor, Martin’s office is enclosed off the main area, on a slight platform. The door is almost always closed, Martin frowning as he types or talks on the phone.

“He’s not one of us,” Veronica muses most days, as she slips out of her overcoat and walks to the coffee station for the first cup of the day, greeting Julie from marketing and Hans from design. “No wonder I haven’t had a promotion in three years. Look at him—he thinks he’s above us all, looking down at those of us who do the real work. His door is never open for the rest of us.”

Veronica is telling herself stories, the way we all do to make sense of the world, and as she does so, the space between the company’s culture and her own narratives may be inadvertently keeping her and the company from moving forward.

Worse, she’s not even aware of it. “Martin’s a great CEO,” she tells friends when they ask. She means it, too. But, unconsciously, she has been thinking that Martin is dedicated only to profit, brushing aside her recommendations for a triple-bottom-line model and for a learning culture.

Stories in our minds, narratives in our workplace

When was the last time you heard a story? Was it a movie you paid to see? The fairy tale you read at bedtime by the glow of a nightlight? Was it the elaborate tale of a traffic jam told by a coworker?

Stories have a significant social and evolutionary purpose and have played a role in our collective history since before our forebears put pigment to rock in the caves of Lascaux, France. Paul J. Zak, director and founder of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and professor at Claremont Graduate University, has done extensive research on oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for creating a desire to cooperate with others. For a social species like humans, this cooperation neurochemical is essential to survival, and Zak’s research shows that oxytocin is linked to storytelling. In fact, Zak has found that stories are good for our brains, help us make positive changes in our lives, and encourage us to help others.

There may even be some gender differences when it comes to storytelling. Heide Baumann looks at how cultural stories affect women’s journeys to leadership positions. Her research shows that when business leaders believe stories about women already having equality or women choosing not to seek leadership positions, businesses stay stuck and don’t work to hire or promote more women executives. Men and women both tend to repeat stories about how far women have made it, while ignoring stories of harassment and inequality. Even the words used in men’s and women’s stories in business are different, Baumann argues. For years, women were depicted as “pushy” or “gossiping,” while stories about the same behaviors in male executives paint them as “assertive” and “speaking their mind.”

Changing the narrative

Veronica has been telling herself a story about Martin. Each time he eats lunch in his office instead of with the team or every time he passes by her in the hall, absorbed in a phone conversation and not meeting her eyes or saying hello, Veronica’s story gains another scene, another interaction—which casts Martin as the villain in the glass tower, lording over all the hard-working employees like her who are trying to build a conscious company. Each time Martin closes his door or fails to reply to an email, she gets more “evidence” that he does not take her efforts seriously.

Veronica’s story is her own, but it has an impact on her and everyone around her. It keeps her from acting as though her promotion is certain and prevents her from acting “as if” she were already in the coveted COO position she’s had her eye on. Because Veronica acts on assumptions and tells herself stories about what Martin does, her narrative also impacts Martin and the company. The CEO doesn’t know how he’s perceived, and he’s been cast in the role of “bad guy” without having a chance to answer the charges.

The subtle tension is influencing Veronica’s coworkers, too. The unspoken tension she feels places a strain on her entire team. It’s tough to build a conscious company when the leaders aren’t pulling together in the same direction, and the unspoken, subtle mistrust between team members certainly doesn’t invite the type of feedback needed for stakeholder integration or pursuit of a higher calling.

Only, what if the story shaping Veronica’s reality and creating those roadblocks does not reflect fact? Curiously, the research about storytelling does not focus on the truth or fiction of a story. Our stories have an impact on our brains, our lives, and our companies whether they are true or not. If that’s the case, what if Veronica noticed she was telling herself a story?

Veronica’s transformation may well begin with her examining where stories come from. The reality is that we float in a sea of stories. There are the stories told about businesses in our wider culture—stories we see in movies or read in books about how things “are” or how they’re “supposed to be.” Usually, the executives in these stories are depicted in specific ways: Ebenezer Scrooge, Elon Musk, Bill Gates. Does Veronica see herself in these stories? Do you?

There are also the stories we hear much closer to home—the stories of our families, where we’re cast as the younger sister who gets lost or the oldest daughter who takes on the world. Our companies are rich with narrative—the “about us” version, which describes how the founder overcame great odds; the talk around the water cooler about how the executive in the C-Suite “really” got ahead.

And around these stories and with these stories and sometimes in opposition to these tales grow our own narratives, the ones we tell ourselves and the ones we sometimes don’t even notice consciously. “I’m a fraud.” “I’m not getting ahead because my boss is biased.” “I’ve got this.”

If Veronica does the deep work to look at the stories she’s absorbing and spinning, sometimes without actively being aware of the process, she’s likely to find her world is a perfect storm of contradictory stories. Once she’s aware of the different narratives, she can start to choose her own way of shaping and explaining the world to herself.

All stories begin with a thread of an idea, and maybe that’s true of Veronica, too. There are layoffs in the community due to an economic downturn, and Veronica starts noticing new details. Despite the rumors, no one at her company is laid off. Three months go by. Veronica takes in the details—the dark circles under Martin’s eyes and the half-bitten rings around his nails.

Slowly, she starts stepping deeper into a leadership role, trying to understand Martin rather than judge him. Instead of seeing him as the villain looking down on her, keeping her from becoming COO, and preventing the company from fully embracing a higher purpose, she decides to hold two viewpoints simultaneously. What if he does look down on us physically but also thinks he needs to be separate from us to work effectively? What if he doesn’t follow the terms of conscious capitalism principles but is also open to those ideas in the abstract?

Standing by the coffee station now, Veronica looks around and wonders: What would this place and team be like if his views and my views could somehow coexist? What kind of biases might be keeping the CEO from making different choices? What can I do to create a space for both our views in a way that serves the company? What if we moved toward conscious capitalist principles without calling them by name?

Day after day, Veronica walks by the glass office and tries to find space to understand Martin while serving the company. Her internal story has veered in a new, empowering direction. Rather than casting herself as the victim caught in the villain’s crosshairs, she is now an equal partner in her own tale, working as a leader to make the company stronger for everyone. Curiously, it makes her a more conscious leader as her awareness hones her emotional intelligence. Veronica has a new story, too: “In my role as a leader, because of my personal experiences, I have the intuitive touch to make this company stronger and better.”

She’s actively creating a new narrative, one that casts her as the hero and serves all of the characters at her company, while bringing them closer to more service and a higher calling. As she does so, she is shaping and changing the fabric of the narrative of the company, because her story is added to the tapestry of that bigger narrative. She can’t wait to see what the next scene in her tale will bring.

Stakeholder Capitalism
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