An organization is the collective story we tell and believe.
Once upon a time, there was a social group of people that came together during the evenings, when they were done with their work of the day. They gathered around a campfire and shared what they had seen, done and experienced during the day when everyone was engaged in their duties. Sometimes, when they were lucky, the wise and old shaman told them a story of long forgotten truths about their ancestors. They came together and felt a sense of belonging, learning from what others had to report and made sense of it together. They told themselves stories.
It does not matter if that was a couple of thousand years ago, when our ancestors still living in caves came together around the campfire, a family coming together for their evening dinner or when we gather around glass tables in meeting rooms in our business. Humans have always told themselves stories. Our ability for language is what distincts humans from other living beings. Through our ability to formulate complex syntaxes we are able talk about abstract objects or entities that do not even exist, and still the other person knows exactly what we are talking about.
The reason is simple. Humans are wired for stories, probably because we have done it already for so long. We take in information more efficiently, meaning we remember more of the information that is presented to us, when it is in a narrative form. That is why at Amazon Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint in meetings, because bullet points are not telling the whole story. And through taking the time to read or active listening we dive deep into a story, engage with it and embody it.
A good story needs to have emotions. Already Aristotle, more than 2,000 years ago, pointed out that in order for an argument to be persuasive it most not only contain logos (logic) and ethos (character and credibility), but especially pathos – emotion. If my story does not create an emotional response inside of you, then I have not done a good job with my communication.
Organizations as stories
An organization is essentially a story as well. Any business is a collectively told story. And that story is written, spoken and developed by the people working in your organization, your customers and all other stakeholders that come into contact with it. This story is continuously evolving, new people join your company, some leave, new knowledge and perspectives are created, shaping the way your business is perceived.
The story that is told about your organization matters. And it has value. Imagine your business without people, technology or buildings. What is left? A story, or brand. This brand story is so precious that it is even calculated in your accounting as goodwill. It is the reputation your brand has build up and that another company would be willing to pay as an intangible asset above the book value. The brand story is what attracts talent and customers. The brand story is what the stock market values. Think of Airbnb, the alternative accommodation platform, essentially just bites on a server, is “worth nearly $7 billion more than the next most valuable hospitality company, publicly traded Hilton Worldwide”, which actually owns the buildings of their hotels.
Besides the external brand story, the internal story told by members of your organization matters as well. It influences your culture. It determines what are accepted norms and behaviors. The story your employees tell themselves collectively creates a common understanding of what is tolerated, rewarded or even punished, through peer pressure or authority. It also influences how the organization is looked upon, which image or narrative is used to describe your organization, leading to different management and leadership styles. The internal story is based on values and purpose, which creates certain expectations for current and future members. Unmet expectations are often the reason employees leave an organization, because they feel unfulfilled.
Ideally the internal story of your organization is congruent to the story that people outside of your organization tell. What happens when people outside your organization tell a different story? Your organization loses legitimacy from the social context it is embedded in. And how fast such a story can get viral through social media and gain exposure in our connected world show examples of some of the most hated companies in the world, including Facebook, Monsanto or Nestlé.
In a world with growing awareness for social and environmental issues it can only be a question of time till such corporate conglomerates with their financial lobbying power and size are rethinking their approaches and changing their behavior due to the pressure of public opinion. Conscious buyers that stand for different values vote with their purse. Ironically, until then the story that those brands tell are speaking to the majority of their users.
But before your organization’s story reaches potential customers, touches their hearts and triggers their emotions, this story needs to be loved by your employees first. And for that is has to be expressed. Often the story exists only in the heads of the founder or in a small team of executive management, making it hard for anybody to relate to it. If there is no story that humans in your organization can relate to and find meaning in, then it creates a void. A meaningless emptiness. Perhaps no surprise that there is so little liveliness and engagement in organizations without a compelling, inspiring, envisioning story. Such an environment either leads to people leaving your company or filling that void with their own stories, which could be misaligned to your intended story. Make your story accessible and tell it often!
Creating an authentic story
How can I create an engaging and vibrant story that speaks to other humans based on their values, a concept called transcendental marketing? How can I create an inspiring story that provides my current employees with meaning? How can I create a authentic story that ensures legitimacy from my stakeholders and a thriving, sustainable business?
It is essential that a story is authentic. We humans have a sixth sense for knowing when we are tricked and a story is not honestly expressing the intention of a person, or a collective organization. The mistrust that an intransparent and inauthentic story creates is hard to rebuild, and most likely will end up in shitstorms, like the examples from above show.
Therefore, the process of creating an authentic story for your organization is imperative, as well as individualistic. If you want to create engagement and buy-in from your employees or even your stakeholders from the beginning then you shape the story together. Here are a couple of questions that can enable that thought process, or should I say emotional journey:
- Where do we come from?
- Why do we exist?
- How do we create value for people?
- Where do we want to go?
- How do we look at people?
- How do we want to work?
- How do we want to treat people?
A compelling story can create a collective feeling of belonging, that is so essential for us human beings. An authentic story creates a psychological safe space, that provides meaning and trust. An almost magical feeling that we have when we sit together with people that care about us around a campfire and listen to a story that keeps our attention.
HumanBusiness helps you co-create authentic stories of your organization.
Also published on Medium.