How to rewrite your company mythology

Corporate mythology can be damaging rather than helpful. Here's how to recognize your company's and transform it for the better.

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I once had a meeting in the company cafeteria with a client, which was fairly typical, as they suffered the universal challenge of never having enough meeting rooms. As we spoke, the cafeteria gradually filled with people chatting, laughing, eating, and otherwise enjoying their lunch. The topic of discussion turned to the client's culture of hard work, and how the company valued individual contributors who worked above and beyond expectations.

"In fact, we're not a lunch culture... No one ever takes a break for lunch since there's just not enough time to stop and step away from your desk," my client said with a completely straight face.

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I stared for a moment, waiting for a smile or punchline to a joke that I'd not yet comprehended, but he was completely serious despite more than a hundred people sitting around us enjoying their lunch.

This is an extreme example, but every company has its own mythology, replete with tall tales, and "facts" that are accepted at face value despite being obviously untrue. You've likely experienced, or been guilty of contributing to or conveying your company's own unique mythology.

Often, the mythology surrounds how hard and long employees thanklessly toil away. In some companies, it might be bragging about the thousands of unread emails in your inbox, the implication being that you're so overworked there's nary a moment in the 24-hour cycle where you can catch up on something as trivial as email. In many of the consulting companies that I've worked for it's the myth of the "90-hour week," whereby the default response to any question ultimately comes down to "But I've been working 90-hour weeks," which is easily observed to be untrue except in very rare cases.

Are myths a bad thing?

Since the dawn of humanity we've had stories and myths, and oftentimes they were designed to promote good behavior. From Little Red Riding Hood to various oral traditions, these staples of the human experience taught us not to talk to strangers, to listen to our elders, and other positive behaviors. Elements of your corporate mythology may operate in the same way. Most have heard stories about how Sam Walton's famous frugality permeates the culture of Walmart still to this day, or how Larry Page turned a PhD dissertation into Google, and your company likely has its share of myths that promote positive aspects of the culture.

Like all good things, corporate mythology can be taken to an extreme where it becomes damaging rather than helpful. Your rough-and-tumble start-up myth might now be enabling bad behaviors ranging from lack of financial discipline to a culture that actively harms some groups of employees, the latter a trait that's unfortunately been on display at several companies as of late.

In technology shops in particular, mythology around what a tech worker supposedly looks and acts like may make it hard for people who don't fit that mold to feel welcome and productive, even if they have the perfect talent stack to succeed in your organization. A culture of "we're too busy for email" can permeate multiple aspects of the organization to the point that it becomes acceptable to ignore basic task management and communications.

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Question (and potentially rewrite) the myths

The first step to counteracting negative corporate mythology is to question the myths and ultimately change them. If you find that productivity is suffering due to a "we don't check email since we're too busy" myth, call out people who proudly share this fact, and share how you're able to manage your inbox. If your company continues to celebrate a culture that borders on a college fraternity, rather than speaking about the good old days with reverence note how the organization needs to evolve as it grows rather than reflecting on the past. Like most bad behaviors, you as a leader enable harmful mythology by spreading it, and even by merely standing idly by when it's spread, as your silence is generally interpreted as an endorsement.

Just as different societies and cultures have evolved their mythology as times and technology change, so, too, must your organization grow and evolve its own corporate mythology, especially when it prevents growth or actively harms the organization.

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Image: opolja, Getty Images/iStockphoto

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...