Are you stuck in a "Culture Story" that's creating a bad experience at work?

 |  13 October 2022

There was once an argument between the wind and the sun about who was stronger... starts the Aesop Fable, The Wind and The Sun. Spoiler alert, the sun became the winner and the message in the story was that persuasion is better than force. Aesop was a storyteller and philosopher from around 500-600 BCE.

Humans have been using stories to describe experiences, explain lessons, and share emotions since the dawn of time. Is it any surprise that we make up stories on a daily basis to make sense of the world around us? Our brains are neurobiologically hardwired to accept and build a story. It's a human feature that keeps us safe and also keeps us connected to each other.


The problem with this feature is that in the absence of facts and data... we make stuff up and fill in the blanks, ie, we create a story.


Imagine that someone comes up to you at work and starts telling you about a change that is happening and that there is going to be job losses. When you asked where the information came from the person just shrugged and moves on to the next person to share the story with them. You start to think, geez that guy is a liar; he's just moving about the office worrying people. What a terrible person he is. Which story is real? We can't know without facts and data, but that doesn't stop your brain from creating a story to support what you want to believe is true.


In workplaces every day, stories are being invented and they impact us. They impact our experience of work, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. They can impact our self-esteem and our perceptions of others. There are common and shared stories, real stories, false stories, fun stories and terrible stories... But one thing we know to be true... there will be stories being told.


How can we leverage this storytelling feature to help us to create better experiences at work?


According to Gallup, only 22% of people are engaged at work (ref: Gallup State of the Global Workforce 2022) this isn't a story, unfortunately, it's a fact.


Sadly, the majority of people are not experiencing workplaces that inspire growth, real change, or fulfilment. People tell us at SynergyIQ that they want to give their best, but aren't able to because of the 'culture' of their workplace. If we want to improve our experience at work, we need to improve our culture and to do that we need to understand the stories we are telling ourselves that reinforce what we are experiencing.


What is a Culture Story and how can it help?


A 'culture story' simple tells the story of your company's current identity, it is the narrative that is common to your business and people's experience of your business.


A story is made up of many elements, and your business often has a deep history, but the 'culture story' is generally short and succinct. To discover your cultural story you can listen to what people say. You'll hear things like, "I have to...", "Here we ...", "My colleagues and I always...", "I love my job because..."


Understanding your current 'culture story' can provide you with information on what experience your people are currently having and therefore highlight areas that need to improve and change. Using the story method, you can also develop a 'desired story' that can provide you with a destination to work towards.


To develop your desired culture story (and therefore move towards a new experience at work) you can start building the story using the following elements for maximum impact:


WHY is it so?


The origin story is a favourite for movie-goers. People want to understand what shaped their favourite hero. In business, there is generally a myth or legend about why the business and culture are the way they are which helps to shape the culture of the business.



- Google was started by two young IT engineers who wanted to start a business and didn't know what rules they were supposed to break, so they broke all of them.
- Pixar was born when a creative movie maker, a businessman, and an IT innovator got together to challenge and innovate the way movies were made.

What's your myth or legend?


Who are the CHARACTERS in your story?


The characters within your business influence and impact the experience that your people are having. There are often good 'guys' (protagonists) and bad 'guys' (antagonists) in a well-told story who are human, so they are both strength and struggle, victor and victim, good and bad, including the protagonist.


PS: 'Bad guys' don’t see themselves as bad. They think they’re right. And a well-rounded bad guy is much more realistic and memorable.



- Steve Jobs at Apple is known for his innovation, skill in communications, and ability to create beautiful and society-changing products, he was also known for his 'bullying' and often boorish behaviour. Is he the 'good guy' or 'bad guy' of Apple's story?

Who are the characters of your story?

> Who are your heroes, and what's their Achilles heel?

> Who's your memorable 'bad guy', who isn't really a 'bad guy'?


What is the SETTING of your story?


Having a clear picture of where the story is taking place provides the reader with context and therefore helps them understand the theme of the story and why certain things happen the way they do. The setting may include location, time, or era, but it also includes how things look, smell, taste, feel, and sound. In business, this might be your local society, your location, the building in which you work, or the way the work environment is utilised by your people. Your setting influences your experience at work.



- Oxford University is set in almost a thousand years of history, surrounded by sandstone buildings that are hundreds of years old.
- Facebook is set in silicon valley, surrounded by other tech start-ups and mega companies, and has strong links to Stanford University.

What is the setting of your 'culture story'?


What's your Point of View (POV)?


Readers experience everything in a story from one character’s perspective. What the character sees, hears, touches, smells, tastes, and thinks, is telling the story. Movies provide us with a wider POV because we can often see and experience things the protagonist doesn't. In business, our stories are often only told from the POV of the person telling the story.


What point of view are you telling your culture story from?

> Are there alternative perspectives and POVs that you need to explore to full understand your culture?


Beliefs, Values and Motivations Create Your IDENTITY


In every good book or movie, the author (screenwriter) knows the power of creating a complex character with a unique identity. This identity is made up of beliefs, values, motivations, knowledge, struggles, strengths, and experiences. Your culture is the 'identity' of your business.


A business's identity is not an individual identity, therefore you must examine these things in the context of groups and having a shared experience - not an individual one. That is why thinking like an anthropologist is often more helpful because they consider the shared experience first, rather than thinking about the individual's experience first.


What are the shared beliefs, values, motivations, struggles and strengths of your people?

> What are the habits that have been created by these shared beliefs and stories?

> How have these habits been reinforced in the culture? Through artifacts, policies and systems perhaps?


What are the PLOT twists in your experience at work?


The plot is the sequence of events that make up the story. In a book, it’s what compels your reader to either keep turning the page or in a TV show, it brings us back after the commercial break. In business, it's the events and moments of truth (big and small) that either wed our people to our company or shed them from the company.



- 2020 was a big plot twist for many businesses. Not just because of the pandemic, but because of the 'great resignation reality check' - their people realised that there was more to life than what they had on offer as their 'experience of work'. Many individuals told their companies, with their resignation notices, that they weren't offering anything special.

What are the Plot points in your culture (or business experience) that keep people coming back for more? What are the Plot points that make your people 'put the book down' or 'turn you off' AKA leave your organisations?


Is CONFLICT a regular feature in your stories?


In fiction, a reader or watcher craves conflict and wants to see what results from it. Because the need for storytelling is embedded into our minds and biology, and in the absence of real information, facts, and transparency we make up stories, conflict often features as the main plot line. We love a good conflict, but sadly many people aren't skilled in managing conflict constructively and therefore the results are not good for our cultures.


Examples of well-known conflict stories in businesses:

- Mark Zuckerberg was accused of stealing the original idea for Facebook from friends at Stanford University. Though settled out of court so never 'proven' the story remains unresolved and therefore conflict remains part of Facebook's history.
- Pixar is famous for having 'candour' in its value set. Film-makers at Pixar must be open to and willing to engage in intensive and often brutal feedback or 'candour' sessions. This type of conflict ensures that the best and most innovative films are created.

What are the regular conflict stories told at your place of work? Are your people skilled in using conflict constructively?




How you expect the story to end informs every scene and chapter of a book. It may change, evolve, and grow as you and your characters experience change, but you need to always have an eye on the end game as you develop your story. Your company or project vision can be that end game. Most people want to believe that their work is contributing to something meaningful and bigger than themselves, having an inspiring vision will provide a beacon of the future for them.



- Google: to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.
Atlassian: Behind every great human achievement, there is a team. Our mission is to help unleash the potential of every team.

What is the inspiring 'end game' or vision that can be part of your culture story?


Next Steps


Once your story is created you can start to weave the new story into existence. This happens through time, effort and investment in your business and people.


Step 1: Identify the things that hold your current culture in place.

Step 2: Stop doing those things, and start doing something different.


Seems simple? The formula is simple, but like everything, it's the effort that is challenging. Start today, you've nothing to lose (except your old tired culture) and a new refreshed culture to gain.


SynergyIQ is a leader in enabling change in business and has helped many large and well-known businesses across the world to leverage their culture and culture stories to create a better experience at work for their people and their customers. Get in touch with us today for a no-obligation discussion about your desired future.


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