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Story Always Reveals the Truth about Culture

Your culture is defined by the stories that are told and retold. A policy won’t change your culture. If you tell people they can take as much vacation as they want, but no one in leadership ever takes a vacation, then your vacation policy is not real.

Balance is another myth that gets propagated through internal campaigns about meditation and yoga and getting enough sleep. That’s all great, but if it isn’t supported, it’s just propaganda. I cannot tell you how many organizations I know that send out e-mails about work/ life balance while managers are responding to e-mails from urgent care with a sick child or even worse, bragging that they were answering e-mails while they were in labor! I’ve heard that story more times than you would believe.

Think about the stories that fetishize the professional martyr. This is the person who answered e-mails on vacation, always stays late, arrives early and seems to be at every meeting and is perpetually exhausted, and revered! If you aren’t sharing stories about people who have good boundaries, take time off, and manage to work and have a life then you aren’t cultivating a culture of balance.

I’m from a generation that didn’t have any language for balance. We canonized workaholics. We all went to work sick and bragged about it. The sicker you were the more impressed everyone was by your dedication. If you had surgery and came back against your doctor’s orders we would throw you a parade. It was toxic. Now we have research and language for balance but not necessarily any cultural change.

I remember years ago watching a TED talk about Manal al-Sharif driving in Saudi Arabia. She discussed how culture is more powerful than actual law when it comes to behavior. I found this TED talk profoundly thoughtful because this is true everywhere. Story telling cannot be separated from culture. It, in fact, creates culture.

Your policies around vacation, balance, DE&I, family leave or anything else mean nothing if no one is sharing positive stories about their experiences. Stories, not policies reveal the truth about a culture. I can’t tell you how many calls we get from large companies asking us to speak for free for their “women’s initiative.” The initiative has no budget which means it isn’t important because we invest in what matters.

Who is doing the DE&I work in your organization? We have many historically marginalized people being asked to spearhead programming inside of their organization, but they aren’t being paid for this work and they aren’t being afforded the necessary resources or authority.

Some of the most powerful work I’ve ever done has been story sharing in organizations about being a historically marginalized person in the workplace. I’ve even been witness to professionals sharing how they’ve marginalized others. No one in those rooms ever waxed poetic about any policy or law, they simply shared their story of exclusion or inclusion.

When an employee leaves, they won’t be talking about your policies, they’ll be talking about how they were treated and the work culture. They’ll be telling stories, not reciting your mission statement or handbook.

No one believes a policy, campaign or mission that sits on a website or is pasted in e-mails. We all know the difference between truth and propaganda in the workplace. Culture has a heartbeat, it lives and breathes and persists through story.

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