Strategy and Culture

Which Story Are You Telling About Your Culture? Most Companies Choose From These 3 Approaches

How do you tell the story of your company culture? Do you tell about the great team spirit that results from it or describe your ways of working? Or maybe talk about your values and how they work in practice? Or just let people say what they think is unique in our culture?

Deciding what you should put in your culture deck or employee handbook is not always an easy decision to make. Depending on your challenges and the strengths of your company culture, there are three approaches to telling the story of your organizational culture – the ideological, the mythological, and the sociological. Each of these have their strengths and weaknesses.

Ideological approach: focus on the ideas

The ideological approach to culture is to explain your culture as a way of thinking.

Organizations with an ideological approach to culture talk about their purpose and ideas, how they want to change the world. Central questions are: What are we trying to accomplish in the big picture? How does our culture serve our purpose? What do we stand for and why?

One way to write an ideological narrative for your culture is to describe a problem or situation in the world, and then explain how your company fits into the picture, and how your culture helps to fix it. Facebook’s culture handbook – the so-called “little red book” – uses this approach.

An ideological approach to talking about culture works best when you have a strong purpose that connects well with the employees. It does not work, however, if the company lacks an interesting vision or has a workforce that is not moved by big ideas. Ideological approach falls short in industries where manual labour is involved.

Mythological approach: focus on the tribe

The mythological approach to culture is about explaining your culture as a way of belonging.

This approach to communicating about culture emphasizes storytelling about the tribe that is composed of the company’s employees, its habits and its origins. In other words, what events in your history have shaped you or symbolize what you stand for? Who are your people, and what stories do they tell?

Mythological approach gives more voice to employees and lets them tell their stories about the culture. Zappos, the online clothing retailer, is known to re-write its culture book every year with the help of its employees, as was revealed by the CEO Tony Hsieh in his book Delivering Happiness.

The strength of the mythological approach is that it can be felt in your heart and gut compared to the ideological approach, which emphasizes offering a unified and rational explanation. The focus is more on feelings and a sense of belonging. Mythological approaches are mostly used when companies are looking for a good cultural fit, and want to keep its ideological goals open for the time being.

Sociological approach: focus on the dynamics

The sociological approach to culture means explaining your culture as a way of working together.

This approach dives deeper into the dynamics of the culture; to its social and psychological principles that enable individuals and teams to work together. It aims to answer the question of what laws govern our culture, and what kind of ways of working make up our culture.

The sociological approach to talking about culture is more focused on offering descriptions of habits and team principles instead of talking about core ideas and the rationale behind them (ideological) or celebrating the tribe with its origins and rituals (mythological).

The sociological approach is not used as much as the mythological and ideological approaches. This is perhaps because it lacks emotion. Still, many companies have found that culture needs to be developed in a more rigorous way, and have incorporated more sociological explanations.

Spotify utilizes a more sociological approach in its Engineering Culture -materials, as it presents its ways of working in a visual and rather technical manner. Google also uses mostly sociological descriptions when talking about its culture, especially in its re:Work effort that aims to create a more data-driven approach to management and HR. 

Which one is for you?

The ideological, mythological and sociological narratives all provide an effective way of talking about culture. But still, companies should decide which of these three matter most for them in their current situation. So make sure you know whether it is the ideas, the tribe or the mechanics behind your culture that need to be clarified and communicated. 

If you are looking to connect your people around your purpose to support a more meaningful work-experience, or position your organization as a thought leader, then perhaps the ideological approach is your way to go. If you want to build a sense of belonging or find the best cultural fit, then the mythological approach is your best bet. If your goal is to create a better working environment, or if you want to connect your culture to your strategy, then sociological approach will probably serve you best.

You can mix them up, but having one as your main focus will bring clarity to your message.

The most pressing problem, however, is not which approach to choose. It is that many companies have no approach at all for talking about their culture.


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