Changing Organizational Cultures: The Power of Stories

December 1, 2010

By William A. Wines, J.D. and J. Brooke Hamilton III, PhD


The Power of Stories

Culture influences many aspects of an organization. Unlike the tangible outcome measures that determine profitability, market share, or the value of good will, culture is intangible and more elusive. Leaders should use multiple initiatives to craft a meaningful story to bring about desired cultural changes because stories establish the cultural DNA that gives organizations their identity. Attempting to augment or redirect the organization's ideology requires a compelling narrative.

Defining Organizational Culture

Organizational culture is a combination of the beliefs, values, symbols, traditions and narratives which a company develops over time. These aspects may be conveyed either formally or informally to employees and usually include both conscious and unconscious design aspects. In other words, culture can be created and it can occur spontaneously as a result of a company's history. Stories can embody and communicate these cultural elements very effectively.

Why Change your Organization's Culture?

Many organizations, especially those in jeopardy of legal or ethical catastrophes, are faced with the need to revamp their cultures to generate new values, new vocabularies, and ultimately new behaviors. This is not an easy undertaking. On the contrary, attempting to mend your organization's culture is analogous to repairing a home's foundation. As Real Estate agents, we are sure you are well aware, foundation issues are not easy fixes. Because of the nebulous nature of culture, it can be difficult to identify clear and present action items to achieve this goal. While this description may appear bleak, it is not impossible to change an organization's culture; and the use of storytelling may make all the difference.

The Power of Myths

One way to tell stories effectively is to employ the power of myths. Allen Bloom wrote that the most powerful people in a society are the myth makers (Bloom, 1987 pp. 199-201). A myth is the compilation of shared stories, traditions, and rites of passage that inform and create both significance and direction for a community. Robert Coles, a Harvard psychiatrist demonstrated the effectiveness of literature and stories as vehicles to promote moral development. We may not necessarily perceive the story tellers - the poets, writers, and artists - of a society as powerful people. However, envision the impact such mediums have on an entire society. Humanity can be pushed towards greater ethical sensitivity, or can more fully develop and take ownership of its ideals through stories. Myth is "the unconscious information, the metaprogram that governs the way we see 'reality' and the way we behave" (Keen and Valley-Fox, 1989, p. xii). The power of a community's story culminates in development of societal or shared myths, which serve to reinforce or redirect the intentions of the group. The same phenomenon applies to the business environment. The cultural myths adopted by each generation influence and even shape a society's commerce. Consider the American dream, and how this myth promotes free-market ideologies. The influence of myth is pervasive; and dominant myths pervade and influence communities on both a meta and a micro level.

The Influence of Stories

Stories are subsets of the overarching myths that create identity for individuals and communities, as well as for individual businesses and business and professional groups like Real Estate. Stories hold groups together and give them uniqueness. How would we talk about Marlboro cigarettes without discussing the Marlboro Man? How do we explain General Mills and its enduring success without the story of Betty Crocker? Common narratives bind us to one another, giving us a shared purpose, and a feeling of connectedness. And, while we are undoubtedly bonded by our common rational goals, we may be bonded even more securely by shared emotions. Altruistic behaviors that cannot be explained by rational utility have been shown to be very strong driving forces (Rachels, 2002, pp. 63-75). Stories have the ability to expand our vocabularies, to affirm our values, and to shape our ideologies as we build emotional connections to compelling narrative images. Employing stories to prompt desired behavior can greatly assist thoughtful leaders in reshaping organizational cultures.

Change the Story, Change the Culture

If you face the overwhelming task of redirecting an organizational culture toward new values and ideologies, consider how you might create stories that will supply your agency with a new, improved identity. Consider first the societal myths. A new organizational story is much more likely to gain acceptance if it is in harmony with the dominant myths of society, such as those that celebrate the value of hard work and cheer for the smart entrepreneur. Secondly, evaluate the history of the agency. New stories should have their basis in this history. For example, Motorola employees are told the firm's early years in the culture of integrity of the small Midwestern town of Harvard, Illinois and about the founder making payroll from his personal funds out of concern for his employees. Thirdly, new stories must effectively demonstrate the desired behavior you are seeking from employees. Consider how Conoco disseminated information about nominees for its President's Award for Business Ethics as stories of creative solutions to ethical problems (Hill, Hamilton & Smith 2005). Fourth, some stories may be melded to create an institutional platform for new growth within the organization. Examine, if you will, the way that Cadbury Chocolates was able to blend its Quaker ownership's pacifism with a desire to provide holiday overtime for workers and another goal of expanding its market share by producing tinned chocolates at the request of Queen Victoria for British soldiers in the Boer War. Cadbury did it by accepting the order but pricing it so as to not make any profit for the company. (Wines & Hamilton, 2009) Finally, new stories should have emotional power (Kotter 2006).The better stories, the ones with emotional impact or "grabbing" power will be told more often, better remembered, and more quickly become part of the culture.

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Bloom, A. (1987), The Closing of the American Mind, New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. Coles, R. (1989), The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. Hill, V., Hamilton, J.B. III, and M. Smith (2005), "Creating an Ethical Culture as a Strategic Advantage for Global Growth: A Conversation with Archie Dunham, former Chairman of ConocoPhillips," Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship, 10 (4), November, 82-89. Keen, S. and A. Valley-Fox (1989), Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Story Telling, Los Angeles, CA: J.P. Tarcher. Kotter, J.P. (2006), 'The Power of Stories', Forbes (March 12). Accessed 19 June 2008. Rachels, J. (2002), Elements of Moral Philosophy, 4th edition, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Wines, William A., and J. B. Hamilton (2009), "On Changing Organizational Cultures by Injecting New Ideologies: The Power of Stories." Journal of Business Ethics, 89(3), 433-47.

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About The Authors

William A. Wines

William Arthur Wines was Associate Professor of Business Law in the Steven L. Craig School of Business, Missouri Western State University, Saint Joseph, MO 64507 from 2007 to 2010, when he officially retired. Professor Wines holds a B.S.B.A. with distinction from Northwestern University and a J.D. from the University of Michigan and was admitted to practice in Minnesota and Washington State. In 1999, Wines was the John J. Aram Professor of Business Ethics at Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington. Between 1968 and 1972, Wines served on active duty in the U.S. Army. He was honorably discharged as a Captain. After finishing law school in May 1974, Wines worked as an Editor on the National Reporter System for West Publishing Company in St. Paul, MN. He passed the Minnesota Bar in 1974. In 1976, he passed the Washington State Bar Exam. He worked as an associate attorney doing trial work and a general civil practice with the firm now known as Burgess and Fitzer, Tacoma, Washington. Wines has published more than forty articles in law reviews or other academic journals. Some of the top journals include the Arizona Law Review, The DePaul Law Review, The Journal of Business Ethics, The Labor Law Journal, The Nebraska Law Review, The Marquette Law Review, The Economics of Education Review, and The William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law. He has edited two books of readings in business ethics and has written a sole-authored textbook, Ethics, Law, and Business (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006). His work has been cited by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and in the Harvard Law Review as well as in over one-hundred other publications. His academic awards include being named the Albertson Library's 16th annual Professor of the Year in 2000 at Boise State University. His writings have won numerous awards including the Irwin-Business Publications Inc. Prize for best paper at the Midwest Academy of Legal Studies annual meeting (1983); the William O. Douglas Prize for best paper at the Pacific Northwest Academy of Legal Studies in Business (thrice - 1985, 1991, and 1999); and the Tri-State Academy of Legal Studies award for Best Paper at its annual conference (2005). Wines has taught at the Bemidji State University, University of Iowa, Miami University of Ohio, and the National Economic University in Hanoi, Vietnam.

J. Brooke Hamilton III
Professor of Management, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Dr. Brooke Hamilton is a Professor, Department of Management, B.I. Moody III College of Business Administration at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He holds the J. Wesley Steen Memorial Regents Professorship in Business Administration. He graduated from Georgetown University with a B.A. degree in Philosophy in 1965 and an M.A. in Philosophy in 1968. He received his PhD degree in Philosophy from Emory University in 1972, with a concentration in Ethics and the History of Philosophy. In 1970 he joined the faculty of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, where he taught for seven years, was promoted to Associate Professor, and served as head of the Department of Philosophy for five years. In 1977, Dr. Hamilton returned to Lafayette, Louisiana to join Elks Concrete Products, Inc., his family's concrete block manufacturing business. Currently he serves as President of the Board of Directors for the company. Having completed his MBA at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1990, he was invited to return to academe as a member of the Department of Management. He teaches courses in the Business and Society, Management of Behavior and Organizations and Behavioral Processes, and teaches Professional Ethics in the Department of Philosophy. His business research concentrates on developing practical ethical standards for use in the daily workings of business, on organizational ethics, on issues of honesty in both business and academia, and on teaching excellence. His work appears in several scholarly journals including The Journal of Business Ethics, Business Ethics Quarterly, Professional Ethics, Southeastern Journal of Legal Studies in Business, NACRA Case Research Journal, Management Decision & Journal of Management History, Delaware Journal of Corporate Law, Journal of Education in Business and the Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. He recently spent a year's sabbatical researching new findings in neuroscience and moral psychology and developing a website which offers recipes for operationalizing traditional ethical principles in business and professional settings. During that year he was a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University and at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Dr. Hamilton has been involved in research and teaching in clinical and biomedical ethics since the early 1970's when the discipline, as it is practiced today, began. He contributed a chapter for a nursing textbook on ethical issues in end of life care. He holds an appointment as Adjunct Assistant Clinical Professor in the Louisiana State University School of Medicine and serves as Chair of the Ethics Committee and Institutional Review Board of University Medical Center in Lafayette. He is a clinical ethics consultant for other hospitals in the region and is the founding chair of the Acadiana Area Ethics/Optimum Care Committee which offered ethics consultations for patients and families in nursing homes and home health care not covered by institutional ethics committees.