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Intended Workplace

The Stories You Tell in the Workplace Can Affect Your Culture

storytellingI’ve been working with a company that warned be before I came onboard that the culture was struggling. When I spoke with the company’s leaders I heard things like “there have been some employee comments about us on social media,” and “we say in our culture that we have fun, but we don’t have fun.” When I returned on the second day, one employee said, “So, you came back.” She said something similar the second week, congratulating me on my intestinal fortitude. Thing is, as deep as I went into the organization, and as many people as I spoke with at all levels, I found very few warning signs of a culture in distress.

I went back to the person that had congratulated my stick-to-it-ness and asked her what I was missing. It turns out that when she joined a little less than a year ago she had heard the same warnings, but if she was honest, she hadn’t seen any signs of a toxic work environment. Here’s the thing: she was so used to hearing that this was a difficult place to work that she just sort of started repeating it herself, even though she had never experienced anything negative personally.

So what’s going on with this company? To answer this, we need to step back a couple years and understand the company’s history. Two years ago the company went through a very difficult divestiture. A lot of feelings were hurt, core expertise was lost, and careers were profoundly affected. This event left scars on the surviving employees. However, the reality of the workplace today is very different from the enduring image still lingering in the collective memory. And even though the majority of the employees today were not around during the difficult months of the divestiture, the horror stories continue.

So what can this company do? Here are three ideas:

Create new memories

Celebrate today’s wins and victories and drown out the negative memories of the past. Yes, the divorce was hard, but we have new friends, new customers, and new purpose today.

Tell new stories

Tell stories that show the company’s resilience, prowess in the industry, and the role it plays in the lives of its customers. Customer thank-you notes and stories can be a wonderful source of new mindsets.

Provide closure

Come together and allow people to give voice to their abiding pain, then put it all in a box, tape it shut, and toss it in the dumpster. The physical symbolism can be a powerful thing. Then, when the subject comes ups again, the group can say “we threw that in the dumpster.”

We all have the opportunity to work in thriving environments. We just need to make sure that the stories we tell are not stopping this from coming to pass.

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