Leaders manage stories to support the culture they want. The leader needs to know what stories are being passed throughout the organization. And ultimately the leader needs to ensure those stories that are helpful to the organization and its culture are the ones being told. I’ve been known to purposefully create events (not rituals, just an occurrence) that I knew would be picked up and passed on as stories…It’s all about managing the culture.Harold Kurstedt
The Main Point (93 seconds reading time)
Image: https://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/11417. The painting is by Emanuel Leutze (American, Schwäbisch Gmünd 1816–1868 Washington, D.C.
How do we teach and promulgate the corporate values and all of the organizational culture? We tell the cultural stories and pass on the cultural legends out loud and we follow unwritten rules that aren’t typically spoken, much less written.
In your organization, people tell each other stories. In fact, you have some people who are known to be good story tellers. When a particular story is passed on through the generations and embellished to strengthen the importance of the corporate values, the story becomes a legend. People choose which events and activities to tell others. The stories can communicate favorable events, people, and results of the organization – or not. The leader needs to know what stories are being passed throughout the organization. And ultimately the leader needs to ensure those stories that are helpful to the organization and its culture are the ones being told. I’ve been known to purposefully create events (not rituals, just an occurrence) that I knew would be picked up and passed on as stories. The key is who witnesses the event (the story tellers) and how much people will be engaged by what happens. It’s all about managing the culture.
Stories can be told as gossip, rumors, or jokes. What is the punch line? That’s the important question. The grapevine works quite rapidly. That’s why people participate in the grapevine. We live in an age when people want the latest information immediately – whether the information is accurate or not. What metaphors do people use in your organization? They can use sports or war metaphors. They can use family or community metaphors. There’s a difference; and the difference gives us a peek into the organization’s culture. Some organizations purposely create and promulgate slogans to sell the organization’s products and services and to encourage people to join the organization’s culture. The slogan can become more like a logo or a symbol that represents the organization and what it believes in.
The legend is quite interesting. You probably have family legends. The interesting thing about a legend is that the legend is typically not true – at least not totally true. The important thing about a legend is that it teaches the culture’s values. And, the legend is based on fact. Here’s a symbol that represents a legend based on historical fact that you’ve probably seen that communicates the values of the American culture. Have you seen the painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City? If not, try https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emanuel_Leutze or better yet, try https://gardenofpraise.com/art34.htm. This painting was used as culture management tool. The painting includes heroes, legends and stories, values, and symbolism – all elements of the culture.
The Follow Up (127 seconds reading time)
It was very cold on Christmas night 1776; and Washington and his troops were crossing the river under the cover of darkness to surprise Hessian and British soldiers. Obviously, the painting presents an image far from the truth. There wouldn’t be light. They wouldn’t fly the flag so prominently. Washington wouldn’t be standing up. Etc. The point is that the painting shows the symbol (American flag), the heroes (Washington and others), in the form of a story that has been handed down as a legend. The American values represented in the painting are courage, rugged individualism, patriotism, and vision. For centuries, these values have been known to represent what Americans believe in and stand for (and how we do things around here).
This legend about Washington has much truth in it. But, how about the legend of Washington and the cherry tree? This legend is used by many parents to teach their children about the value of telling the truth – even in the face of punishment.
Then, there are the unwritten rules. In culture jargon, unwritten rules are called the norms of the culture. Norms are the standards we measure ourselves against. Here are some examples of unwritten rules: 1) Show respect for one another. 2) The person who gets there first gets the most (an unwritten rule in many families with many children). 3) Avoid sharing information with other groups. 4) Don’t disagree with the boss. 5) Don’t put down employees in other departments. 6) Don’t rock the boat. 7) Don’t trust management. 8) Employees only care about what they can get. 9) Say what you think. 10) Don’t let it go if it’s not right. 11) Help others. 12) If you do a thing again, do it better. 13) Tell me what you can do, not what you can’t do. (These last two rules are a big deal if you work for me.) 14) Consistency counts. 15) Don’t make waves. 16) Don’t stick your neck out; or always cover your backside.
Unwritten rules tend to imply always do this or never do that. They’re pervasive. An organization is a system. In systems theory, we learn that the performance of the system depends totally on its structure. The most powerful part of the structure of the organization is the unwritten rules. Outside influences on the organization do not lead to its performance. Outside influences only perturb the system into its performance based on its structure (internal variables). Yes, even the external economic situation merely perturbs the organization into its performance based on the unwritten rules. How about the rule, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” and other similar rules? Are those your rules? Or are your rules more like, “When my performance falls, it’s due to outside influences and when my performance rises, it’s due to my abilities and strengths.”?
Unwritten rules dominate over policies and written rules. Therefore, unwritten rules are more important to a culture manager (leader) than policies and written rules. Consider this example. If you leave work on Friday evening clearly late for your family’s dinner and come upon a traffic light that has just turned yellow, do you abide by the written or unwritten rule? The written rule is to slow up and stop. The unwritten rule is to step on the gas and get through before the light turns red. Unwritten rules dominate.
I knew of a family who later in life discovered that one parent had brought an unwritten rule into the family: “Never say you’re sorry; and never admit a mistake.” Do you believe this unwritten rule affected the behavior (performance) of this family? Do you believe the family is better or worse off for having discovered the rule?
What are the unwritten rules that influence your performance? Once you know the answer to this question, you become powerful because you can do something about it.