Submitted by Shawn Durr on January 16, 2024 - 15:13

Organizational Culture: The Stories We Tell

Organizational culture is often embedded in the stories of an organization that reflects its values, norms, and identity. These stories, whether passed down through generations of employees or shared through official communication channels, play a crucial role in shaping the cultural landscape. There are different types of stories:  

  • Founding stories about the formation of the organization, the vision of its founders, and the initial challenges they faced. They often highlight core values that inspired the creation of the organization.  

  • Success stories that celebrated achievements, milestones and times the organization overcame challenges. These are important because they highlight characteristics of success. 

  • Shared experience stories about memorable moments of personal growth for staff, board, volunteers, clients and donors. These reveal the individual human element of the organization.  

  • Change stories which are narratives about organizational change and transformation in response to external factors. These stories shed light on how the organization embraces (or doesn’t) change. 

  • Hero stories that highlight instances of staff, clients, board and volunteers achieving the seemingly impossible. They showcase the individual’s contribution.  

  • Crisis stories about how the organization handled deeply challenging times. These stories are about organizational resilience, decision making and commitment during difficult times.  

Here are two ideas for getting people in your organization storytelling. 

  1. At the beginning of a strategic planning session or a leadership meeting focused on the strategy side of the business (we call it working on the business versus in the business) ask a team member to share an experience/story that exemplifies an organizational value. You could ask for a different story for each of the values. Debrief the story by asking, “What characteristics of the story can we leverage to strengthen our culture?” or “What does this story say about who we want to become?” 

  1. Find a children’s story or a legend that exemplifies key cultural characteristics you want to see in your organization. Give a copy of that story to each new employee at an all-staff meeting or new employee orientation. At an organization I led, we chose the book Hope for the Flowers which illustrated the transformation of Yellow and Stripe, the two main characters, from caterpillars into butterflies. It highlighted the courage it took to chart your own path of transformation. This was particularly poignant for our organization as it showcased how often our paths ran parallel between our staff and our clients.  

Myths and stories are powerful ways to share and shape culture. By identifying and discussing these stories, leaders and staff can gain a deeper understanding of the organization's culture. Recognizing the cultural elements embedded in these narratives allows for intentional culture shaping and alignment.