Defining moments of a business become the bedrock of corporate lore and help shape a firm's culture, motivate employees, personify the company vision, and indoctrinate new hires. Think Nordstrom's and the tires returned without question, or Hewlett-Packard and their barn, and you've got the idea.

But what happens when your story is told so often that it resembles an old leather shoe that's spent a week with a chew-happy puppy? As stories age, their effect on employees can change - sometimes to the detriment of the story, as well as to the perception of the company and its culture. How? Here are a few examples:

  • If only one story can represent or define your company (despite years in business, supposedly modeling that vision), perhaps the culture isn't what you think it is, or the company is hanging on to the past rather than moving forward.
  • The story might foster an "us versus them" mentality, foster cynicism among some employees, or alienate newcomers who weren't around when the defining moment or action occurred.
  • Held in such high regard, the actions from which these stories took shape can seem unobtainable or unrealistic in the day-to-day life of a business, potentially deflating employees' hopes of creating their own defining moment.
  • The story which gets told and retold in your organization may have long ago detached itself - and it's meaning -from contemporary organizational reality. So the story becomes rote, an obligatory speech that's completely devoid of meaning.

Spring-Clean Your Closet of Company Stories
Just as you would clean up, weed out, and spruce up your closet, cast a constructively critical eye at your organization's closet of stories and myths. Try these tips to maintain your stories as meaningful tools to engage employees' interest, explain the organization's vision, or personify the company culture:

  1. Freshen up your organizational myths:
    Just because a prevailing story took place two, or five, or even fifty years ago doesn't mean it doesn't have value and meaning in your organization's contemporary culture. But it surely won't have meaning if a search for renewed meaning doesn't take place. Just as you regularly "check in on" your vision and how it's manifesting itself in daily activities, include a review of your organizational myths and stories to identify refreshed meaning and new examples of these "myths in action today."
  2. Cull for new stories:
    Keep your eyes and ears open for new stories that can replenish the old ones. Posting "calls for stories" on the intranet site, in the company newsletter or on a main-corridor "graffiti wall" are a few ways to solicit the latest news on a defining moment.
  3. Recognize the oak in the acorn:
    Meaningful stories don't have to extol the obviously extraordinary events and actions in order to be powerful. (Grand oaks emerge from little acorns.) In fact, these stories can have the reverse effect with employees who might think, "I would never be in a situation like that." Start telling the stories that show how your company is living its vision of customer service, for example, in daily activities. This is where one's mettle is proved, not solely in a single act of "heroism."
  4. Ask new hires what they think:
    Something attracted new hires to your company. Find out what it is, and tell those stories. Also, pulse out to long-term employees, asking what's kept them here, and why. Very often these things relate to something that an employee did, or something that a person observed while at an interview or working within the company.
  5. Monitor how and when stories are used:
    As with choice words, once stories become overused, they're shunned or deflated of meaning. Be careful not to "over-expose" your stories, and watch for the "eye-rolling factor" to identify which stories have become devoid of meaning from overuse or lack of freshening. Also, review internal and marketing communications to ensure that people aren't reading the same content over and over, just waiting for a glimmer of a proof-point, for instance.
  6. Look for new ways to express the vision or culture:
    Relying heavily on a story or set of stories might be a sign of lazy communication. Brainstorm new, effective ways to share the vision or cultural behaviors with employees.

Jamie Walters is the founder and Chief Vision & Strategy Officer at Ivy Sea, Inc. in San Francisco, CA.

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