Providing Public Service: Stories that Make Us Great

Providing Public Service: Stories that Make Us Great

I recently read an interesting piece on organizational culture (not a new piece; one I just found) that focused on organizational mythology. By “mythology” I don’t mean falsehood. I mean the stories that are told, and retold, within an organization, stories that express something at the core of the experience of being a member of that organization.

The article focused specifically on certain types of myths common to some organizations. The myth of the boss who does not shy from doing what front-line employees do (in the army, this is called a soldier’s general). The myth of the leaders who care more about their employees than about themselves, who sacrifice for the team by offering better benefits, or meeting the unique needs of individual employees in hard times, or preserving jobs at the expense of profits or even of their own income.

The myth of the leader who treats mistakes, even large ones, as growth opportunities, who asks “what can we learn?” rather than “who do we burn?” when things go badly wrong.

The article’s thrust was twofold. These stories actually are common across organizations. Not across all organizations, of course, but across many. And even as they are common, they also can be revealing about organizational culture.

The second key point: organizational culture probably matters more to the employees’ overall quality of life than any single other element of the work environment. Which means that the stories are at least as important as the benefits briefing.

I think the reason this article spoke to me was that it resonated with my decades of experience with elected municipal officials and with municipal employees.

In my many opportunities to hear elected municipal officials tell stories, I have listened to innumerable accounts of why a particular city is just awesome. Some of them are no more than assertions of greatness, unsupported by anything other than the speaker’s words.

Others, however, involve stories of brilliant, public-serving innovations, or deep staff devotion to the needs of the community. They may be heroic, or inspiring, or touching, or simply very, very smart.

It is the story that supports the claim, the story that brings it to life and demonstrates its truthfulness.

Something else about stories, at least in my experience.

The stories we tell are themselves a force toward becoming the kind of organization we wish to be. The story may recount exceptional behavior, the very best of which the organization is capable, but not the norm. By telling the story and describing it as characteristic of who we are, rather than a surprising exception to our typical conduct, the storyteller can assert the existence of an organizational culture that team members long for but that has not yet taken firm root. The story can call that culture into being simply by making it true of our understanding of who we are.

This isn’t about telling such a story to the public for the sake of convincing the public of how good we are. That’s a whole different project.

The story may be told in public, but the public isn’t the primary audience of the storyteller.

It is the team.

“This is who we are. This is what we are capable of. This is our essential character.”

Tell me I’m good, without telling me why, and I’ll feel good. Tell me what about who I am, or what I’ve done, that is the reason for saying I’m good, and I both know that I am valued and why I’m valued.

Tell others, and I’m likely to feel called to live up to the story, to keep the myth alive.

This is true for an individual, and it is true for an organization.

In our culture today, there is a popular thread of criticism, even condemnation, of public servants and public service.

Some of it is justified. We all know of cities and other governments that are struggling to be the kind of service organizations they ought to be.

But some of it is simply habit . . . bad habit. We tell jokes about government. We consistently assume the worst about government when something goes wrong. We play to the crowd and the contemporary prejudice. We get the desired reaction. And we stop there.

Against such a popular cultural backdrop, it is vital that municipal leaders find the stories that are both factual and deeply truthful, that remind us, as public servants, of who we are and why we do what we do.

It is the stories we tell that help us understand what greatness looks like. And it is the stories we tell that help us to become great.