“What stories get told and retold in your organization?” This is a great question to surface core values. Any values-driven organization will have several stories — each reinforcing core values.
Some stories may date far back in the organization’s history; these have been handed down to each successive generation. Other stories may spotlight recent customer interactions or projects that reignited pride in the core values.
The stories provide vivid illustrations, reinforcing core values as actively present in the company’s actual actions, interactions, and decisions.
But many organizations, focusing on the workload of today and preparing for tomorrow, answer the question about stories with a blank stare. What a missed opportunity!
Reinforcing core values by sharing stories — old and new — is a powerful way to bring values to life.
Collect organizational stories that show core values in action. Tell these stories at meetings. Share them with new team members during orientation. Talk about them at company retreats and events. Embed stories reinforcing core values into your company’s culture.
Great storytelling takes practice, but it’s a compelling habit. New to storytelling? When crafting a story reinforcing core values, include five key components to shape an engaging story: 
- Setting and characters: time, place, context, key players
- Build-up: a sequence of events that leads to the high point of the story
- Crisis or climax: the key event, high point, or moment of truth within the story
- Learning: what the key players learned
- New behavior or awareness: how things are different, how the organization changed
Reinforcing Core Values with Stories
Stories as Proof
One reason stories are powerful? They serve as proof, reinforcing core values as actively present in the organization’s actions, interactions, and decisions. Stories about critical moments — when people in the organization had a choice between falling short or standing tall when it comes to core values — prove that the values aren’t just empty words on the wall or website.
Gather proof. Mention a core value and ask people, “When have we proven that we really believe in this principle?” The stories don’t always have to be earth-shattering dilemmas. Reflect on your own experiences. Listen for what has struck and stuck with people.
An Example – What’s the Story of Your Workspace?
Looking at an example from the Purposeful Facilities work we do with clients who are building or renovating workspace makes this tangible. Imagine your organization is updating your work environment. You’ve really been intentional about creating more than just a roof over your heads. You’ve laid out a vision for how the space can reflect your values. You’ve worked with a design team to create a workspace that supports people working productively and in tune with those values.
Then the crews came in. They removed and demolished anything that doesn’t fit the plan. They’ve built and installed everything needed in the new work environment. There’s been a lot of chaos. People continued to do the “day job” of the organization while preparing to move in and adjust to a redesigned space.
What does the communication about the redesigned work environment focus on? Along the way, when it’s time to inform the team about decisions and design elements, what do you share?
- Option 1: Stick with the essential facts. Move dates, seat assignments, etc. Leave a lot unsaid, no need to explain everything.
- Option 2: Recognize that there’s a Story of the Workspace, and share it! Reinforcing core values and their connection to why workspace elements were selected, it’s possible to craft a narrative that helps people make sense of the new environment as tangible proof of core values.
In both cases, the story is there. Core values drove key decisions. When communication sticks with the facts, team members may infer how workspace decisions connect with core values. Or they may not. When the Story of the Workspace becomes broadly known, the connection between space and core values is clear.
Stories as Recognition
Another powerful effect of reinforcing core values with stories? Retelling key moments recognizes people for acting in congruence with organizational values.
Pausing to relate a story about people who’ve made significant contributions to the organization’s integrity and culture sends a strong message. If team members who were involved are present, there’s a direct boost of recognition. If they aren’t present, they will often hear that the story is being shared when a coworker mentions “I heard how you handled ___ – very cool!”
Tell stories that recognize people for upholding core values. For those listening or reading who were not involved, hearing positive stories about the accomplishments of predecessors or colleagues affirms the value of people acting according to core values. Some may even secretly hope and work to be named in a future story.
A caution: Be careful about who gets recognized in the most-repeated stories. If a story recognizing a team accomplishment leaves out individuals who contributed, the omission will be noticed. If the same people show up in stories again and again, while others’ efforts to uphold core values go unmentioned, the threshold for news-worthy impact will become meaningful.
Stories as Social Glue
Storytelling does not always have to come from the top to be powerful. Of course, leaders have the opportunity to exert top-down influence through daily behaviors, conversations, and decisions. Actions by leaders, and the stories about those actions, can help form the team’s perceptions of core values. However, leaders can also promote bottom-up influences, inviting team members to actively contribute to reinforcing core values and shaping culture.
Stories tie people together. Ask team members to share stories about how core values impact their daily work. Actively participating in narrating the organization’s story creates a deeper recognition that all organization members co-create the organization’s story through the work being performed. Members of the organization who see themselves as authoring stories take on a more active role rather than only that of passive listener.
Reinforcing core values with stories is an engaging way to reflect on what’s happening to support or undermine core values. Include a story-crafting element at an in-person event and notice how the room is set abuzz with energy. Or host a story swap electronically with a Virtual Whiteboard.
Stories as Activators
Projecting stories that people would like to be able to tell about current projects and initiatives is a compelling way to activate people in directions reinforcing core values.
Great stories happen to those who can tell them.
– Ira Glass
Storytelling doesn’t have to be limited to looking to the past, or to explaining and highlighting things that are happening in the present. Imagining future stories together acknowledges that in organizations we are living in moments that can become story-worthy.
In planning and strategy discussions, take some time to craft stories that align with core values. Share how you imagine things, and emphasize the importance of core values. Engage people to imagine together how things could go. Identify core values connections together.
Use the stories to fuel operational decisions about what each person or team needs to contribute to make the story a reality. Use the stories to raise awareness and risk monitoring as things unfold, encouraging team members to speak up if it feels like reality is heading off-track from the storyline.
A resort hotel CEO describes the power of storytelling to turn hidden interactions into motivators:
What stories will you tell and retell in your organization?
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