Travellers stories or stay-at-home tales

Published by Tony Quinlan on

I was recently at the latest Storytelling in Organisations conference in Norwich, UK and listened to David Boje present, focusing on a highly personal story about a significant event in a family member’s life.  At the end, David commented that despite the research involved in this story, he still felt he knew little of the family member in question.

It struck me that there is a parallel of how we tend to think about organisational cultures.  We often look at the big, dramatic events and assume that they are the signifiers of what is important in the organisation and what the culture is.

But I’ve come around to thinking that actually the more important cultural indicators are not the big things, but the daily little things that aren’t even rated as events or decisions – they’ve become so small as to be unnoticeable.

Culture is the thousand little decisions that we don’t even notice taking.

At a recent client, a boardroom conversation was covering values in the organisation.  One member insisted that "Respect" was a strong point.  "No, it’s not," came the rejoinder.  "In the past week I’ve been to dozens of meetings – and no-one has been on time for a single one of them.  Including myself."  "But that’s not about respect."  "Yes it is.  We’ve just stopped noticing."

That’s not to say that the big decisions aren’t important – but more in the way of signifying changes in direction and thinking.  Mythmaking – big, visible acts that differ dramatically from what’s gone before.  But not culture.  Far too blunt for that.

Similarly, to truly learn about a person’s character, while there can be value in looking at the big moments in their life, the richness of their personality comes from the little stories of day-to-day living and priorities.