Jul 6, 2015 | People, Performance

The strongest organizations in the world achieve sustainable success largely because they understand the value of culture as a competitive advantage.

Let’s face it. Culture can be hard to define and difficult to measure. Senior executives tend to shy away from investing in initiatives with fuzzy ROI. Yet, whether you measure it or not, you have a culture. It may be empowering or toxic. Either way, the results are showing up on your bottom line.

Skilfully managed cultures can be a performance multiplier. Recent research by the Great Place to Work© Institute found that companies that actively invest in workplace culture yield nearly 2x the return over the market average. They also typically average 65% less voluntary turnover, saving an average of $3,500 per employee in recruiting and training costs.

Though many have tried, no one has ever landed upon the fixed, universal definition for organizational culture. The subject has been vigorously debated from the pages of the Harvard Business Review to the halls of MIT Sloan. What is not debated is that culture is part of the DNA of every organization. Its impact is both tangible and intangible.

As complex as culture is, however, it is more within an organization’s power to shape than many of the external forces that bear on performance. One of the simplest ways to start is by connecting employees with the big picture. Within every employee is a person who wants to be part of something greater. Yet, the big picture is often blocked by layers of bureaucracy.

High-performing companies clear the path to the big picture. They systematically ensure that intangible qualities of their culture roll below the top of the org chart. Consider the power of stories organizations share about their history.

“We are our stories,” writes Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future. We compress years of experience, thought, and emotion into a few compact narratives. Stories are our chief means of linking to our past and predicting our future with emotional context.


General Mills
 offers an example of a company that taps into its history to shape culture. Ask an employee about the company’s history, and you will likely hear the story of the 1878 explosion that killed 18 workers and destroyed its largest flour mill. After the disaster, the company’s founder developed a far safer technique for milling flour. Rather than patent it, he gave it away to all of his competitors. He relinquished strategic advantage for the safety of all mill workers.

The story gets repeated because employees take pride in preserving the values modelled by the founder. The use of organizational history helps employees see themselves as part of a still unfolding story and of something bigger than themselves.

Every company has a history, but those with high-performing cultures turn their history into heritage. They understand the value of helping people connect to the big picture. When carefully curated, simple stories can turn into powerful performance multipliers.

What stories does your organization have to help employees connect to the big picture? How do you share them?

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