Don’t Panic Series (Part 2): How does culture change?

Fundamentally, changing culture is going to require some pretty significant changes. There’s going to be a new direction on where to go, and you’re almost certainly going to have to stop doing something. This means interrupting the way you normally work because in order to change direction, you have to pause and put the brakes on.

Continuing with the Don’t Panic series, Dave Sharrock and Melissa Boggs will explain how culture changes as well as discuss the technique of storytelling.

How does culture change?

Dave Sharrock (DSH): When it comes to organizational change, there are going to be new structures and processes. As much as we can email powerpoints and do roadshows to explain what those structures and processes are, the truth is that this is NOT the way we change what we do. We have to understand the human nature of organizational change.

To Melissa’s point about the traditions, behaviors and habits in an organization, all of those norms need to be redefined. Those norms need to be changed step by step, piece by piece as we go forward and what we would like to do is talk about how that happens.

1. How do changes in a culture happen?

Melissa Boggs (MBO): This is so much more than change management. As shown by the Results Pyramid, it is about changing Experiences. When you change an experience for someone or you create and share a new experience, it begins to change one’s belief. Those beliefs are strongly tied to the traditions, habits, and behaviors that we talked about earlier. Once beliefs start to change, we see new actions which then ultimately generate new results. So it’s important to understand that you can’t just start at the top and tell people, “this is what it will be like now”. Instead, change starts with the experience.

DSH: In my experience and unfortunately for myself and the teams I’ve worked with, I’ve learned to do many things wrong before I began to understand what was going on. When I look at this Results Pyramid, what I find is that I used to work according to the “Manage” piece involving only Actions and Results. I would define clear processes and I would communicate what my expectations were for the teams and direct reports whom I worked with. But I got so frustrated because it felt like I was pumping up a tire. As soon as I turn my attention away, everything breaks apart and I have to pump things up again.

It was only through many experiences like that when I began understanding and accidentally coming across the idea of creating experiences that helped people to buy in and change what they were doing. As a result, you don’t have to go back because people are now taking ownership of their actions. They own the processes and they will fine tune them. In this case, the role of leadership is to proactively and deliberately create those unique experiences that can change the behaviors, habits and behaviors of an organization.

MBO: It’s important that people are doing things because they believe in them. If they are doing things for you or doing things because their leader told them to, then they will only do them when the leader is watching. When leaders help them to have a new experience or even model that experience themselves, then it starts to change people’s beliefs.

2. What makes stories powerful?

DSH: Telling is not about scaring people into where they are going to be if they don’t act. To provide you with some context, I would like to touch on what it is about stories that make them so powerful. Here, I would like to cover how science shows that stories is a form of communication that optimizes how we hear things and how we think about them.

A. Historical Tradition

Let’s start with Historical Tradition. Before we ever wrote things down as human beings, we would talk to one another – telling stories backwards and forwards. Studies have shown that historical traditions have gone back tens and thousands of years ago. As an example, in Australia, scientists and historians have discovered that the current day aboriginal people have stories that date back to 10,000 years ago. They are able to name, describe situations, and point to islands which are now submerged due to the rising of sea level. They talk about islands, lands, and experiences from 10,000 years ago which scientists and geographers are able to uncover.

So the historical tradition of telling stories is how we communicated with one another as a species. Not only do we appreciate stories, but we use them to communicate important messages.

B. Retention

The question then is does science back us up? So there are a couple of things we have seen, and one of them is Retention. Many of us are probably familiar with the notion that we are more likely to remember either first and last or unusual things. For example, Stanford research studies are finding that we will remember statistics much more closely if an anecdote is associated with them. By attaching an anecdote to a statistic, our retention goes from 5% up to 65 to 70%.

C. Mirror Neurons

Further to that, there’s the interesting idea of Mirror Neurons. When we listen to a well-told story, we are able to walk along that story – the emotions, actions, scenarios. We are able to put ourselves in those situations and experience those feelings along with the storyteller. The reason behind this is that the brain is effectively mirroring what is happening or what the storyteller is telling. What’s intriguing is that the storyteller is going through the exact same experience. This is the result of mirror neurons. They are neurons that copy what somebody else is telling us and recreate those emotions ourselves or equally if I’m telling that story, I would have those experiences as well.

The benefit of those stories is that both the storyteller and the listener is reliving those experiences; thereby having a much stronger feeling as a result of that.

D. How information is processed

Finally this leads us to how information is processed. Psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock have also found that the way we absorb information is driven by those stories as well. In a well-told story, we hear and we process information in a different way. We have the tendency to follow that line in the story and that story changes those people. You can see the effect it has on particular neurons. The way the brain is processing the stories is very different to the way we absorb information without an anecdote or a story associated with it.

3. What are the top 3 rules when telling stories?

DSH: So diving in, Melissa can you tell us some of the rules with telling stories? What rules or techniques do you apply when telling stories?

MBO: The first rule is something you have to do wherever possible, which is using a Third Party. When you’re involving someone else in your story, this lends more credibility. For instance, Dave gave a great example about how this had worked with him and his kids.

DSH: Yes. Interesting thing that I found is that if I tell my kids I think they’re smart, you can see their doubt. They don’t really believe the words coming straight from me. The reason being is that I don’t have the credibility because I’m their father; thus, I’m going to say these things. On the other hand, if I say, “your teacher says you’re smart and you’re going to do great things”, bringing that third party builds a whole lot more credibility and they are much more likely to take that feedback seriously.

MBO: Moving on, the second rule is Sharing Emotions. If you think about your favorite books or poetry you have read, it’s often a description of how they feel – the thoughts that were going through their mind and what had inspired them in that moment. The emotions help you to remember that story.
Lastly, always Keep It Simple. Be descriptive but don’t go on for so long that you end up losing the clock.

Special Notes:

1. Missed our first blog post? Click here: Don’t Panic Series (Part 1): What is culture?
2. Stay tuned for our next blog post: Don’t Panic Series (Part 3): How can you change culture through stories?
3. To listen to the full webinar, click on this link: