19,000 years ago, a group of Cro-Magnon people huddled around their campfire, sipping a warm broth, sharing stories about the forces behind the stars, the clouds, the wind and the rain.
Last Thursday, a group of coworkers huddled around a table at Starbucks, sipping their lattes, sharing stories about what’s right and wrong with their company.
Put any humans together into a group, and they will create a set of shared beliefs about how their world works. These shared beliefs are the myths of the community.
Philosopher Neil Gillman, in his book Sacred Fragments,describes myths as attempts by communities to “discern specific patterns in their experience, and to shape these patterns into a meaningful whole that gives order to the world,” adding that myths are the “structure through which a community organizes and makes sense of its experience.”
In our modern understanding of the word, we tend to think of myths as stories that aren’t true. But whether a myth is true or false really doesn’t matter. What really matters is how a myth can glue a community together. In fact, as Stephen Palmquist writes in his book The Tree of Philosophy, a myth is “so intimately connected with a person’s way of life that the person never considers asking the question ‘is it true of false?'”
People who work together in companies will inevitably create myths about their company, in order to make sense of their shared experience. As Gillman writes, “The issue is never myth or no myth, but which myth.”
Why do myths matter?
As we can see in the Brand Harmony Results Model, your company’s ability to drive business results ultimately depends on the employee beliefs within the company.
Brand Harmony Results Model – View a larger version
Employee beliefs – the myths within your company – drive the actions employees take that create the customer experience and, ultimately, influence the beliefs and actions of customers. Simply put, your profits can never be better than your myths.
What myths exist in your company? How has your corporate community decided to interpret their world collectively? Imagine it was your work colleagues huddled around the table at Starbucks. What are they saying?
Think beyond the most obvious question: “Are the myths in our company positive or negative?” Yes, this is an important question, but it is only the first question.
Here are other questions to explore:
Are there competing myths
within your company?
Does your sales team share one set of myths, while your operations team shares another? Do the home office’s myths contradict the myths in the field? Do senior management’s beliefs have anything in common with those of the broader employee population?
Not surprisingly, competing myths are something I see frequently in my advisory work with companies. And, not surprisingly, competing myths can hurt a company’s performance. (Just look at the Brand Harmony Results Model- having many sets of employee beliefs will lead employees to create a disjointed customer experience.)
But… when people throughout a company share the same myths, great things can happen. One of my favorite examples, which I wrote about in my book We: The Ideal Customer Relationship, is Kimpton Hotels. In my first meeting with the company, the executive team painted a picture of a company with a very strong point of view about how to serve customers and honor employees as individuals. It sounded wonderful, but, I’ll admit, I was skeptical that employees would see things the same way. However, in every employee meeting I conducted around the country at Kimpton’s hotels and with employees of every rank and job role, I was shown the same picture. Kimpton has 6000 employees, and very rich myths are shared throughout this employee community. Another thing that is not surprising:Kimpton’s high customer satisfaction scores.
What kind of actions do your company’s myths encourage?
There was a restaurant in my town (it has since closed), in which the servers all took a disinterested, aloof attitude towards customers. I could see right into the soul of this restaurant, getting a clear view of the shared myths among its employees: “Customers are a nuisance. This is a boring place to work. We don’t really value our jobs here,” etc. A quick look back at the Brand Harmony Results Model shows what happens with these kinds of myths: Employees act in ways that create a negative customer experience; customers don’t form compelling, motivating beliefs about the restaurant; customers don’t come back very often, and the restaurant loses money… and closes.
The most important question about the myths in your company is whether they encourage the kinds of employee behavior that lead to optimal financial results. Remember, your profits can never be better than your myths.
As you do business with companies this week, as a customer, see if you can detect the myths among their employees. Are the myths positive or negative? Do they seem shared among different people at the company? How do these myths influence the actions employees take?
How do you compare?
What about your company? How healthy and shared are its myths? Since you’ve been with the company, what has changed over time?
Next time you’re huddled around a “corporate campfire” with your colleagues, ask them what they believe the shared stories or myths are that live in your company. Don’t prompt them too much – let them talk. See what they say. Does it seem like they know what the myths are? Do the colleagues you are sitting with share the same myths? What are their reactions as they discuss the company’s myths?
Neil Gillman writes, “We literally cannot see the world except through the spectacles of our myth.” In one sense, this is scary, because it’s easy for a company’s people to create negative, pernicious myths that can hurt the business.
On the other hand, strong, rich, shared myths can do wonders for a business, as indicated by another of Professor Gillman’s points: “Myth lends integrity and identity to a community, generates loyalty to its unique destiny, motivates behavior and deep and lasting affective impulses.”
Nurture the right kinds of myths and shared stories in your company, and beautiful things will happen.