Changing the Cultural Narrative

perspectives Mar 02, 2017

Stories influence people to feel, think and act in certain ways. Hence a positive and deliberate cultural narrative is a key part of any successful culture.

There is a lot of valuable information available on powerful business storytelling and ways to create a new narrative. However, a story will only be successful if there is evidence to back it up (changes in behaviours, systems, processes and beliefs). Additionally, this evidence needs to be shared and reinforced (success stories, celebration rituals, regular forums) for a new narrative to truly come to life in an organisation. Without evidence or reinforcement, stories may only end up producing cynicism.

Another challenge when creating a new narrative is the strength of the old ones. When a culture is seeking to evolve, its existing narratives can hold it back by stifling the energy for change and experimentation. Therefore we also need to understand, question and let go of or reframe old narratives in order to progress.

Imagine, for example that your organisation is seeking to develop a more innovative culture and has a strong narrative about what happened the “last time” we attempted innovation and failed. This may lead to timid attempts at innovation, innovation ideas produced and never followed up, or excuses on why it’s not possible at this time (“too busy”, “not necessary”). Very little changes until people genuinely believe that it is ‘safe to experiment’.

So what can you do to embed new cultural narratives?

Next time you hear the repetition of a narrative about the past that may be limiting the present here are some steps you can take:

  1. Ask some questions: for example: “why else might that have happened at that particular point in time?” “If we were to try that again, how might we set ourselves up for a different outcome?”
  2. Challenge yourself or others on the value of repeating the story or narrative. The stories new hires hear in their first few months in the organisation can have a big impact on their beliefs about what is possible and consequently impact their behaviour. How are you creating self-fulfilling prophecies?
  3. What do the themes of the story tell you about people’s desires or what they would like to be different? How could you harness this energy to create positive changes in beliefs and behaviours?
  4. What will people in your organisation need to do in order to let go of the old narratives that no longer serve the organisation? It may be acknowledgement, it could be ritual farewells to the old, and it may something else uniquely relevant to your people.

In a recent workshop with a group of senior leaders, there was a strong narrative that “it isn’t safe to name the elephant’s in the room”. While most were not aware of where that belief had come from, it was strong enough to impact each leader’s behaviours on a daily basis. This reinforced the existing narrative.

A number of the leaders experimented by constructively naming “the elephant” whilst also stating their positive intention in doing this. The conversation in the leadership team changed dramatically. As a consequence, how these leaders engaged with their teams has also changed. The culture is starting to evolve and a new narrative is being born. One step at a time.

What have your experiences been of culture narratives? We’d love you to share your comments below, or drop us a line here.

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