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Company Culture = Stories

When I got my first job out of college as a database developer, I was thrilled. The company was a start-up robotics company with around 200 hundred employees. Many of the team members that I met during the 3 rounds of interviews had been young, like myself, and the tour of the facility revealed a room for resting, a ping-pong table, and a putting green facing the river. It seemed like a fabulous place for a 20-something to begin her career.

During the first 2 weeks after I was hired, I heard a number of stories as my coworkers took me to lunch, showed me around the office, or invited me to happy hour. I heard lots of stories about the owner, who had invented the flagship robotic product as part of his master’s thesis. I heard how he wanted to keep a casual work environment, so every Friday he wore Bermuda shorts and flip flops, regardless of the chilly East Coast weather. I heard how sometimes he would show up at an impromptu happy hour and buy a round for any of his employees that happened to be there. I also heard how, as a Master’s student, he had wanted to work with one of the hospital networks in the area and they had turned him down and so he made it his personal mission to become big enough that they would come to him asking for his help. Which, incidentally, happened a few years later.

The person that I heard the most stories about was the director of the engineering department. Let’s call him Frank. Frank was extremely intelligent and instrumental in the expansion of the robotics offerings at the company. He knew his stuff. Frank was also a bully. Over and over I heard stories about how Frank would fly off the handle and berate people. I was warned that he had, at some point, made every woman who had ever worked at the company cry. I was told these stories as a warning. One that I heard loud and clear: be wary of Frank.

I ended up having a run in with Frank less than a year later. At the time, I worked in the software development department and was the only database developer that maintained and wrote the code for the robot. Between the hardware of the robot and the database code was the computer numerical control (CNC) code, all of which was written and maintained by one of Frank’s employees, Alan. Alan was one of the nicest people I have ever worked with. He was quiet and conscientious. He loved working with machines and tinkered with cars in his free time. We had been given the challenge of finding out why the robotic arm was getting stuck under certain conditions and to fix it.

By day 2 of our troubleshooting we had figured out the problem was an engineering problem, so my role was to provide Alan with datasets that he could use to determine where in the CNC code the arm was getting stuck. We were both on the manufacturing floor with our laptops, climbing in and out of the robot, trying datasets, changing code, and troubleshooting the issue when we heard the metal door slam open, hitting the wall. Everything on the manufacturing floor stopped as soon as Frank started yelling.

“What are you idiots doing down here? What is taking you so long? Don’t you understand how bad we look right now? What the hell is going on?”

Alan put his face down and looked at his laptop. Frank was his boss and he was used to these outbursts. He was just going to let it blow over. I, however, was not going to let Frank make me cry. So, I mustered up the courage and when Frank approached me, I raised my pointer finger and firmly said one word.


Frank stopped long enough for me to continue, “I will not be spoken to in this manner! I am down here working on an engineering problem. I could very easily close up my laptop and go back to my office. Or, I will be spoken to in a professional manner!”

Frank looked like his head was going to explode. His face was red and his hands were clenched. But he didn’t continue yelling at me. He turned and left the manufacturing floor, returning in 10 minutes or so to ask professionally for an update, which I gave him.

This story about Frank and I spread like wildfire through the office. For days and weeks afterwards people would ask me to recant what happened. There were laughs and high fives and I can imagine that Frank probably got some ribbing as well.

However, this did not change Frank’s behavior. Instead, my story became one of the many Frank stories that were given as warnings to new hires in their informal onboarding.

The reason is that although the founder of the company thought that he was fostering a laid back, fun work culture, he was actually fostering a culture that valued the work results over the work environment. Frank was allowed to be a bully because he was really good at the engineering stuff and the engineering stuff is really important at a robotics company.

The truth is that your company culture is the stories that your employees are telling. Your company culture is taught to new hires through the stories that are shared in the informal onboarding of the first couple of weeks. Your company culture is enforced in the stories that spread like wildfire, becoming company lore.

Often, leaders try to change company culture by issuing statements, rewriting the mission statement, or launching an internal marketing campaign. But, if you don’t know what stories are being told about you, your company, your policies, or your leaders, you are probably missing the point. In order to change company culture, you first need to listen to the stories that have become company lore and then you need to find and cultivate the stories that reflect the values of the company culture you want to create.

You cannot replace viral stories with a new vision statement or by sharing a list of core values. Even revamping your training materials will have limited success if you don’t understand the current culture. The stories that your employees and clients are sharing with one another are far more interesting, carry more weight, and are remembered longer. If you want to change your company culture, you need to change the stories. Start by listening to the current stories. Figure out what they say about your culture, and then change the ending of the stories to match your values. Then, highlight and share new stories that reflect the values of your culture.

For example, imagine if the founder of the robotics company, upon hearing the story of Frank and I on the manufacturing floor, had hired a professional coach to work with Frank on anger management. Imagine that through this work, Frank not only found ways to work better with his team, but his relationship with his children also improved. Imagine if that was the ending to the story that was told to new hires at lunch during the first week. That would send a very different message about the company culture!

Want to know what your company culture is? Listen to the stories - the real stories, the informal stories, the viral stories, the stories that they don’t want you to hear.

Want to change your company culture? Write new endings to those stories. Share and highlight the stories that reflect your core values. And repeat.


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