Collect stories. Dispel myths.

Preface: I initially wrote this years ago, while a contributing author on Lifehack.org, and a recent happening brought it back to mind for me. I, and the managers involved, were talking story about the baggage people can carry around with them at work. When is it valuable, and when should we let it go?

Collect stories. Dispel myths.

Every company has a storied past. Are you aware what yours is?

More importantly, do you know why your stories are so important?

When old timers tell the newbies stories about “the good old days,” or “how it used to be here,” or “the first time we ever did this” what are they so fondly recollecting? Why in the world do they keep talking about past events, often making the retelling far more wonderful sounding than you remember actually living the experience of them?

Is there any value in this memorable nostalgia?

When stories are told in the spirit of retelling your company history, your storytellers are often capturing the memorable parts; what they remember is largely what they want to keep alive because it felt very good to them at one time.

Stories of what had been, give us a look back at those things we once believed in, and want to keep believing in. They reveal the values which had bound us together and still do, and why in the aftermath of the story’s events we kept pushing upward and onward.

Stories will often chronicle successes and achievements, and tell of what people feel was a victory, because by nature we want our stories to be good ones; no one likes to recount their failures. However whether victory, mistake, or outright failure, our stories undoubtedly recount lessons-learned too important to be forgotten. We feel we can keep learning from them, and we tell the story to re-teach the lesson. The best advice I can often give in my new supervisors workshop is this:

Find a good listener you can tell your workplace stories to. Get those stories out of past history, and talk story about them.

I want them to think about the lessons-learned they pack for this new job they hold, especially if they’ve been promoted from within. It’s good reflection for all of us who are managers: What’s the empathy you want to carry with you? What’s the value you want to share in your culture-building?

Myths however, are a different matter.

I’ve learned to be more wary of myths, finding that for some reason, those who tell myths instead of stories feel they need to fabricate a past that didn’t really happen. They want to feel better about explaining the present, and why things are as they are. What that tells me, is that workplace values aren’t aligned, and I’d best discover why that is.

Myths may sound plausible, but they are far more fiction than fact, and they are often riddled with half-truths and concocted history. They can be intriguing, they can be wistful and fanciful, but because they never really happened they don’t deliver those lessons actually learned, just the what ifs which might have been. The more credibility the teller strives to give them, the more dangerous myths become, for stated plainly, myths are lies.

With stories you have a solid foundation of the values which served you well; they become predictable values you trust to keep a company centered, for the basic big deal about values, is that values drive behavior. Myths don’t deliver this foundation. Instead, they create a slippery iciness on which you frequently lose your footing. Because a myth isn’t completely true, you can’t be certain; you can’t be sure-footed and confident.

People who tell stories are proud to own them; they claim them as part of their own history just as they claim good values. Those who tell myths are building a case for some reason; and savvy managers will work to dispel those myths so they can get to the root causes of why the myth exists. What they are looking for, is why the teller feels the myth must be told.

If there is any grain of goodness in a myth, it’s that it begs for truth. A myth is a signal: managers who keep an ear open for myths know when problem-solving must begin, in a process aimed at healthier culture-building.

People only lie when they feel the truth isn’t good enough for them. However the great managers among us always prefer the ugliest truth over the prettiest lie, for that way they always know exactly what they’re dealing with. And they do deal with it: They honor the truth above all else, for in doing so they honor their own integrity.

Collect stories to celebrate the values you believe in, and use those stories to help people identify with those values and claim them with you. Add your workplace newness to those stories, keeping them alive and relevant to your current culture — invite people into stories, and allow your ‘new guys’ to be co-authors. Dispel the myths and banish any confusion so that the truth of who you really are is honored.

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