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Myths That Bind

People shake their heads when a favorite organization does something that seems completely contrary to their culture and beliefs. I was in a GreenBiz Forum audience when Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, talked about the corrosive effects of incessant corporate growth on the environment and then proceeded to extol his company’s sales growth during the recent recession. Knowing my Patagonia background, several people came up to me later and mentioned the seeming contradiction.

My reaction? Another example of Yvon strengthening what I call organizational myths–things leaders say (and do!) that reinforce culture and beliefs within the organization. These myths are stories that help define what is important to a culture. That organizations and their leaders don’t always live up to the myth isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People are human, they don’t always do the right thing. As long as the gap between the story and the practice is not too wide or practice doesn’t deviate from the story too often, the culture will remain essentially intact. But if the gap is wide or inconsistent practices become the norm, people won’t believe in the power of the myth. The story will fall apart. The culture will change.

Myths are necessary to any organization that desires to create and maintain a high performing workforce and a relationship with customers that goes beyond price and value. They serve their purpose when they are specific and actionable. An organization can create a myth ­– tell a purposeful story – and then it has to both act and talk about their actions. Even better is to be self-critical – owning up to contradictions and failures will reinforce the power of the myth if progress, whether steady or intermittent, is being made.

A company with a reputation for quality (the story it tells) will be likely to weather a period of poor quality if it makes a concerted effort to address its quality issues and communicate openly about the issues and the remedies. If the issues are ignored or allowed to continue because of cost concerns or some other reason, the initial risk is not the potential loss of customers, but the loss of employee commitment to the organization.

Likewise, it’s easy to find organizations that have built myths around sustainability. Walmart has been the beneficiary of kudos for its sustainability commitments and the target of opprobrium for falling short in any number of ways. Yet, it still maintains its pursuit of sustainability, which provides an organizing principle and direction for at least some segments of the company.

Organizations can, and should, hear from stakeholders be they internal or external when they fall short of the myths that they tell about themselves. But we should all recognize that organizations cannot achieve much without putting these myths in place. It’s a critical part of turning “myth” into “reality.”

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