How social movements can inspire business success

A company can change its culture to one that is more agile and resilient in the face of positive social change, says Alison Esse

Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Extinction Rebellion – they’ve all made a huge dent on our individual and collective consciousness.

Whether or not we are directly affected by the causes they highlight and seek to change behaviour doesn’t matter. We still recognise the name and what they are about.

And how can we not? So successful have these ‘raising awareness’ campaigns been that not a day goes by without at least one featuring on an evening news programme. Their leaders and proponents are interviewed in the magazines and newspapers we read, and they even directly affect our daily lives – who dares to go to the supermarket without a plastic bag these days? It’s not just the 20 cents you must pay for a new one, but the guilt wrought; you know you should be helping Sir David Attenborough get rid of single-use plastics.

And undoubtedly, that’s one powerful aspect of these successful movements – they elicit emotions. All have evocative stories to highlight. There are narratives that can be so painful to listen to that often our first thought is to switch off our device from social media, or turn over the TV, or radio, to hear something a little more ‘cheery.’

After all, it doesn’t always directly affect us, does it? But it does. Maybe not now but it can in the future – whether that’s a friend affected by racism, or our own homes flooded due to climate change. And we know this because these campaigns have told us by showing how national movements can impact individuals too.

So, what does all this have to do with business? It shows how changing the narrative can be transformative for a culture -that includes business culture, so that it becomes more agile and responsive to the major changes that come along. If you’re still wondering if that’s such a big deal or relevant to your business, then a study published in Harvard Business Review showed that organisations with strong cultures that can adapt quickly to change earn 15% more a year than those that don’t.

Right now, many businesses are facing a cultural crisis. During the worst stages of the pandemic, thousands of staff were forced to work from home. Many still are. Company culture is difficult to create with so many employees never meeting up, except online. So, if the company’s identity is already wavering amongst staff, how do you manage to reinforce and, hopefully, improve it once ‘normality’ returns? Here are five areas Storytelling looks at – all of which have been used time and again in successful social movements like the ones mentioned above.

Narrative

The narrative (or story/s) is all-important. It’s the words and pictures that make us stop and think. They grab our attention because they are dramatic, often harrowing, and intensely emotional.

But they also give us a reason to listen – they tell us we can help change the status quo so that ‘things can get better.’ And that’s not just for us, but for a race, sex or climate, i.e., something much bigger than ourselves. In other words, we can play a part in this social movement.

The meaning behind the NHS slogan during the pandemic, ‘Stay home. Save the NHS. Save Lives’ couldn’t have been clearer. It told us what to do to help. It was the ‘Power of 3’ again. Remember Tony Blair’s election-winning ‘Education, Education, Education’ slogan at the 1996 Labour Party Conference?

Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough both brought climate change to the world’s attention. One was a schoolgirl who’d deliberately missed lessons that day and was pictured alone on the steps of her country’s parliament with a placard. The other is a 95-year-old broadcaster and historian who makes incredible documentaries to show us what we’re losing.

But you don’t need Greta or David to change your culture. You do need a good narrative though – one that includes all your employees and makes them feel a valued part of a successful business (rather than an individual picking up a salary at the end of the month).

So, what else do you need? Strong leadership (like your Gretas and Davids) helps….

Leadership

There needs to be a passionate individual or a group of people at the helm to give the movement purpose and momentum.  Think Princess Diana and landmines, Nelson Mandela and Anti-apartheid, Bill Gates, and Third World Aid.

These leaders don’t have to be charming (as Diana and Mandela were), but they do have to ‘walk the talk,’ i.e., be role models. This means they have to act in a way that furthers the cause every day (or at least do nothing to damage it). So, not only do the leaders of the organisation have to be able to sustain the momentum, but they also must empower others to join them.

Having influencers helps…

Influencers

There needs to be a handful of believers in the change to begin with so that the movement can be propelled forward; opinion leaders or change champions, who are prepared to ‘spread the word,’ verbally and via their own actions. Accessible across a variety of platforms, social media, blogs or podcasts, these individuals are relatable to the everyday person and convey a notion of real possibility to their audience. Gaining more followers and promoters of the movement, influencers grow the following until the concept becomes so large it ‘tips over’ and becomes the norm.

Stories of success

With a group-like identity comes the feeling of connectedness. There’s also a sense of empowerment (certainly, with strength in numbers and a feeling that ‘things are changing’).

And it’s at this point when spreading those stories of success really matter. It’s not just to keep up the momentum but to encourage others to share their stories and show how every individual can help and ‘own’ the movement. A great way to do this is to ‘spotlight success.’

One Bristol-based company that we helped, a European packaging business, were only too happy to share the story of two workers whose idea increased production times.

Sharing it on their ‘Employee Champions’ network, they showed how the two women turned boxes upright for faster processing by the machinery. It was simple but highly effective and demonstrated the power an individual can have on a company. This was an idea that any of the employees could have come up with, showing how everyone in the organisation can help. And, more importantly, how they are listened to.

And, as for the bottom line? Defect levels reduced by 73% in three months. Higher standards led to global customers, e.g., Amazon. The company share price increased 460%.

Identity

As social animals, we humans like to feel we belong to a group. It strengthens our identity and, in the hunting and gathering days, would have made us feel stronger in the eyes of predators. In many ways, that’s still the same today.

Branding is a great way to create a social or company identity. A logo identifies a company immediately, think Coca-Cola or Apple. But identity is more than that. It’s also a culture. The outdoor clothing company Patagonia is known more for its environmental outlook than its logo. The toiletries company Lush has always been a recycling champion. In the most recent US election, the Biden-Harris logo had the names stacked on top of each other to demonstrate unity, but cleverly, it used traditional US typefaces to show they weren’t too radical.

Giving people an identity, something that provides a sense of belonging, will draw them together and propel these movements towards change.

Conclusion

In essence, a company can change its culture to one that is more agile and resilient in the face of change. To do so, they need a good narrative, a strong leader (or leaders) to enforce it and dedicated employees to help spread the word. Then branding is vital to establish an identity everyone feels they can belong to.

Finally, sharing and celebrating stories of success from every level of the organisation shows the new culture is working and lets every employee know they too can be a part of it. And who doesn’t want to get involved in successful, positive change?

Alison Esse is Co-Founder and Director of The Storytellers, the storytelling and business transformation specialists. The company has been major organisations to develop a cohesive narrative and highlight their own stories in order to accelerate change to a more agile and resilient company culture.

She believes that it is people that make a business unique. It is about how they personify the brand via their actions and behaviours. This, in turn, builds corporate trust, loyalty and increases customers.

She also insists that for a leader to be successful, they must ‘win hearts and minds.’ That means creating an emotional connection for their employees to have the spirit and energy to see them rise to the challenges created during turbulent times.

Clients Alison has helped over the past 18 years include Airbus, Barclays, British Airways, Coca Cola, Hilton Worldwide, National Grid, Pfizer and Unilever.

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