The Power of Myths and Stories at Work

The ‘It-started-in-a-garage’ story

As the saying goes, “Everybody loves a good story.” Take for example the one about Apple starting out in the garage of Steve Jobs' childhood home in Los Altos, California. The tale was perpetuated for decades but a 2014 interview with Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder, called it into question. According to Wozniak, “We did no designs there, no breadboarding, no prototyping, no planning of products. We did no manufacturing there. The garage didn’t serve much purpose, except it was something for us to feel was our home,” said Wozniak.

The It-Started-In-A-Garage narrative is so popular because it aligns with the epic story. Such stories are lofty tales of bravery and perseverance, of battles won, of crises overcome, and of heroic achievements in the face of adversity. These stories help generate pride and inspire organizational commitment. Epic stories are told over and over again inside and outside the organization. While the story may evolve, the fundamental lessons stay the same.  

Organizational myths and stories are more than anecdotes; they influence workplace culture, employee behavior, and the collective identity of an organization. Here we’ll explore the significance of myths and stories, their underlying purpose, and their implications for organizational culture and leadership.

Why we tell myths and stories at work?

Myths and stories help us make sense of dissonance at work and contribute to us forming our workplace identity. When faced with organizational inconsistencies and complexities, we seek meaning. Myths and stories provide a narrative framework for us to understand past and current events at work and, in doing so, bridge the gap between individual and organizational identity.

Another reason for telling myths and stories is that they serve as social glue, binding us together. Shared narratives create a sense of hope and belonging, fostering camaraderie and connection. Whether we are recounting tales of overcoming challenges or pulling off incredible successes, these stories reinforce a collective sense of purpose and motivation. Stories are often built on emotions, which create lasting memories. In the right circumstances, such emotional connections can foster loyalty, commitment, and engagement.

It's common for stories to feature heroes, individuals who embody desired behaviors or values. Think of a pair of scrappy founders rocking up to a formal business pitch in jeans and no slide deck only to see a competitor leaving the room with an ensemble of twenty in their sartorial best. Needless to say, the swashbuckling duo won the work. These stories serve as teaching tools, passing on tacit knowledge and cultural norms and expectations to others.

However, the underlying reasons for leaders’ mythmaking and storytelling can be more unsavory. They can be used as an exercise in covering your rear or as a get-out-of-jail free card. For example, when leaders or employees tell the story that an implementation failure was out of their hands and due to uncontrollable external cirumstances, they feel better about themselves and may avoid repercussions if the myth is told loudly and often enough.

Implications of telling stories at work

Storytelling can be productive in certain circumstances and harmful in others. As leaders, there are times when we are fully conscious and intentional about the stories we share. All too often though we don’t realize the negative or unintended consequences of our stories.

Leaders’ responsibility: Making the unconscious conscious

Myths and stories have a habit of taking on a life of their own. While we aren’t always going to be conscious about the stories we tell and their impact, leaders and teams should actively explore the myths and stories flying around their organizations, understand their origins, and be honest about their implications. By doing such work, leaders can work on addressing unhelpful myths and stories and building new narratives.


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