Want performance? Learn your stories.

Your organization’s performance improves as soon as you start paying attention to your stories. They are the building blocks of your culture.

First things first: Let’s define culture as “how we do things around here.”

If “how we do things” is “with excellence” or “showing ultimate care” or “always serving the customer” or [insert what makes you stand out here] … living out that culture makes or breaks an organization. 

So “how do we do things” in our Western Civilization? Our language, architecture, philosophies, governments and more show we are still living in Greco-Roman culture. It was so strong that it is still with us, thousands of years later.

That means it’s worth paying attention to Greek culture-building methods. (The Romans used Greeks tutors and their method to educate their kids, too.)

Greek culture-building can be summed up in one word: paideia. It could be translated as “culture”–but also as “education.” Not training, for skills, but education: to turn the student into a wise, virtuous citizen of the culture.

The Greeks would not have understood separating education from culture.

I’m not sure how you react to that. Perhaps you are picturing men in togas strolling a hillside discussing philosophy. Well, probably.

Plato and Aristotle built our culture, partly with stories.
Plato and Aristotle in the process of building our culture. (“School of Athens” by Raphael – Raffaello Sanzio, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=239234)

But I can make it more basic than that: It started with good stories.

Example: In Plato’s Republic, Socrates spends quite a bit of time musing about what kinds of stories we should tell kids to ensure they get the correct views of God and morality.

Why stories?

As my colleague John Kuzava says, stories are storage. They are our cultural memory, illustrating our values. Stories turn our beliefs into meaningful behaviors. We see what it looks like to live out our beliefs and values.

And, if we are being honest, stories capture our imagination and attention a lot more easily than, say, an inspirational poster on the wall with a word like “HONESTY” shot across it. 

Think about the stories you probably know from cultures you are not even a part of: Steve Jobs returning Apple to excellence. The 3M employee whose experiment accidentally invented sticky notes. Walt quietly buying up swamp land in Florida.

Think about the stories from your own culture: The time Billy stayed all night to help another department take care of a customer. The vendor who pointed out, “Wow, you guys always do that!” When everybody came together because of a teammate in crisis. The successes. The failures. 

Three questions to help you build culture with stories:
1. How can you capture those stories and use them in introducing new hires to your company? 
2. Not sure what your stories are? This incredibly short article gives you some ideas. The article ends with some “Culture is …” bullets. Who have you seen do these things? 
3. How is your leadership effecting your culture? This 6-minute read will reveal some common leadership pitfalls to culture building. 

Clients often hire me for a specific accomplishment: decrease employee turnover, increase customer satisfaction, improve some other specific metric.

What we always end up working on is culture-building. And stories are the most accessible way to do that.

If you really want performance, learn and share the stories that make your culture great.