This is my rewrite of a series of blogposts from 2017, formulated into a chapter for a new book being published in 2019. It comes in three parts, covering six perspectives I’m working with on the power of stories and what colleagues David Hutchens, David Drake and I call “The Three Waves” of story. Given the current backdrop of politics, conflict and polarised opinion, it feels to me that the waves are ringing truer than when we first spoke of them years ago. A warning for readers — these will be meaty posts, but well worth the effort! Find Part 2 here and Part 3 here.
These days we call everyone a storyteller – our authors, songwriters, business leaders, activists, celebrities, social media stars – even our politicians. Over the past decade especially, storytelling has gained ground not only as a marketing and communications tool, but also as a leadership imperative. Leaders are flocking to learn how to tell a better story because they believe it will underpin their success and power up their influence.
In these times of complexity, many story advocates are focusing on the old adage that “who tells a better story wins”, without realising the many other powers inherent in story. I want to offer six perspectives on how story can support more flourishing organisational futures, and pair them with the three major waves of how we can focus our work with stories in this time of ever increasing complexity. This is a look at practical application partnered with the future story of Story.
It’s helpful to take a more detailed look at how story can work inside of organisational, community and human structures. After all, stories are how we make sense and meaning of the world. They are the lens through which we form our sense of identity, meaning and agency. We are motivated and stimulated by stories. They are the way our neural network files and orders data and experiences into a structure we can retrieve.
This little word “agency” is an important one. What I believe I am capable of, where I decide to take action and what action I decide to take is wrapped up on my story. It seems we humans are compelled to make meaning, so the stories we tell ourselves, in fact, are more powerful than all the data to the contrary. Our stories create our map of reality and if a new piece of information does not fit this map it is easy for us to be blind to it or to disregard it. Placing information inside a story helps it to land in us, just like a beautiful box makes us want to open it, or a good taste helps the medicine go down.
Stories are human currency, and therefore, they are also the currency of organisation. We trade stories every time we meet, in large and small ways. They focus our attention, tell us what is valued and acceptable in the culture we are part of and what not to do. They enliven and underpin vision and mission – in fact when they are no stories attached to these, they become ossified, merely words on paper that have no meaning.
Stories are like a chemical reaction in the background that is always bubbling away. Or maybe even better as an analogy — organisational culture is like a bowl of yogurt. Yogurt is a living culture (in fact, if something is called “yogurt” that has been so processed that nothing is living any more, don’t’ eat it!). And to stay a living culture, it needs feeding. The higher the quality of nourishment the yoghurt receives, the more life, the more generativity will be in it. Organisational cultures are the same. And the nourishment? Stories. The more generative the stories that are shared, the more generative the culture. It is no use ignoring this process – stories happen regardless. Humans are made that way!
The six perspectives map three different levels of how to apply stories organisationally. They are:
Let’s take a closer look at the first two — story as a leadership practice and seeing Self and Story as positive Change Agents.
Story has gained visibility rapidly within the corporate world as a tool for influence– and for good reason. From a leadership point of view, Story can do all of these things:
The first four points in this list fall under what I’d call Leadership Storytelling. It makes good sense for leaders of all ages and stages to learn how to tell strong and well-crafted stories in order to pave the way for people to both work well together and to know how their part fits into the whole. Humans need meaning and humans at work also need purpose. We need to know the WHY as well as the WHAT in order to engage fully.
From a human relations perspectives, this is called “line of sight”. If I can see how what I’m doing matters and how it fits into the overall goals of the organisation, then I’m more motivated, more committed. The more committed I am, the more likely I am to bring energy, enthusiasm and creativity to my working life. Organisational structures with low employee engagement and low motivation often suffer from a negative or non-existent story base.
I remember working on a major merger process for a telecommunications business. Throughout the process there were many times when the senior leadership circle didn’t have any news to share or they were at one of those places where fog was more prevalent than clear vistas. Their natural inclination was to say nothing. “We don’t have anything to say,” they told me. However, this is the time to keep communicating, otherwise people will make up their own stories about what’s going on. They always do! If you know this is the human default it is much easier to plan accordingly.
Perhaps you recognise these typical personnel survey results:
It’s a good thing to inquire into the story base people are part of that lead to these results. Often the final comment comes when people don’t know how to name that the story they are living and working within is either not sustainable or downright debilitating.
The last three points
fall under what I’d call StoryWork.
Being able to work with the stories already alive in workplace or community is paramount to people feeling like they are heard, invited to contribute, and able to listen to others. We can never make totally safe spaces for people to share their stories, but we can make safe enough spaces. From a community or societal point of view, this is absolutely pivotal now, as fear of “the other” and fragmentation grows.
Once we share stories, we can never see each other in the same way again. We forge some understanding and find a little common ground, a place to meet. We begin to see behind the curtain.
In the merger process I described above, two senior leadership teams were combined into one. It was a challenging and emotional process for everyone involved. For some time it didn’t feel like the teams would be able to understand each other, let alone do the hard work it would take to merge the two structures. We began with an appreciative interview between the teams, sharing stories about our experiences of high performing teams and our dreams for the success of the merger. This work provided a ground where the teams could meet.
From that ground we began to discover the very different ways of working that existed in the two teams. They were using the same words but meaning different things. This cleared up much of the confusion between them and paved the way for the ongoing work of moving along together.
We build connection, as well as the collective muscle for leaning in — staying together, rather than falling apart — when hard stories or big emotions arise or when difficult discussions need to be had. We also build a space for the dissenting voice to show up. In many organisations it can be unsafe to bring emotions to the table, to question or to disagree. Is questioning, for example. a way to deeper understanding or a demonstration of unpreparedness? That depends on the culture.
A West German friend recently told me she discovered that very difference when she first met her East German husband’s family. In her family, questions indicated curiosity to know more about the other. In his family, they represented something entirely different! She found herself wondering why they were so silent, and had to learn that the lack of questions didn’t indicate a lack of willingness to engage with her. It simply meant they had grown up in a different culture.
It is important to realise that stories are a potent support in positive change making. At this point in history we seem to be mesmerised by stories of violence, fear, anger and war. Stories can also be used to help us grow courage, collaboration and connection. It all depends on what you are using your stories for.
For me, seeing self and Story as positive Change Agents has these components:
None of us is a single narrative, each of us is the intersection of the stories we hold about ourselves and all the stories others hold about us. And to add to that mix, the stories we receive from:
and we are each easily the most amazingly unique story cocktails! We are literally “StoryFields”.
Some stories are ingrained in us while growing up, others slip in unannounced and yet others – like national identity – co-opt us, either willingly or not. Because of the way stories work in the brain, we are less stereotypers than “story-o-typers”, applying our stories of people, places and things to help us make sense of the world.
Since story is our lens on the world and therefore the filter for how we take action, becoming more aware of your own storylines is important. The more you have worked with your own stories and the dissonance within yourself, the more you can be resilient around stories you don’t agree with or find confronting. Other people’s stories are literally just someone else’s perspective on the world, but it might not feel that simple!
This awareness is vitally important for leaders. First, because leaders receive projections from those around them — perhaps someone’s expectations or fears of someone in an authority position or perhaps their wounding from a previous hierarchical system or their more basic need for a mother or father figure. And secondly because your own unresolved material means you can be more easily triggered and therefore less in balance when making decisions.
Every system is already full of stories – learning how to identify, work with and shape these is also a key leadership role. Within the merger process, we used Appreciate Inquiry as our foundation for working with the stories inherent in the two systems coming together. The Advisory Team identified three key elements they believed would immediately catapult the new organization into a leadership role in the ICT industry. They named these elements passionate people, raving fans and irresistible leadership. They held as a target, engaging one third of the full system of 1700 personally in the inquiry. The team designed and hosted 17 four hour “Fusion Forums” where equal numbers of employees from both organizations were invited to share stories.
Through listening to, collecting, and distilling core factors from these stories, the team, those engaged in the exercise and through them the wider organization, began to build a comprehensive picture of the core factors required to bring the three key elements to life. Discovering and sharing the stories unleashed great energy and put the focus on the positive potential of the merger process, rather than on what each side would need to give up in order to come together.
Both the Heliotropic Principle and the Principle of Enactment come from Appreciative Inquiry practice field. The Heliotropic Principle takes its meaning from the way sunflowers (and all growing things) turn to follow the path of the sun. Our stories can shine a light on positive change that can be made and they encourage people to turn in that direction too.
The Principle of Enactment might be subtitled “The Gandhi Principle” or be the change you want to see in the world. In New Zealand, people used to call this “start in the way you mean to go on”. Tell the stories that encourage you to act in new, open and more courageous ways. Act in ways that help you embody your vision and keep telling stories that will help others to act like that too.
So back to that word Influence. For me, this is the first wave of how we work with stories. Leaders — and others — want stories to help them create influence.: See it my way, follow me, or our product is better. There is a power in stories. The question is what we are using that power to do. And here we touch the interlaced practices of ethics, morality and power.
There is no innocent story — although there might be innocent intentions. Every story creates a perspective and asks you to step in and try it on for awhile. “Hear me”, “listen and help me figure out what I think”, “this moment meant this”, “I’m asking for your support”, “I’m like/not like you”, “here’s something I want to share/help you understand”. And just like any other tool out there — a bulldozer or a hammer or a weapon — it is the intention you use it with that makes all the difference.
We are in the age of influence and that makes it is important to remember that storytelling is also what makes us human and this gift can be used in any way we decide. Our stories can hold us down or they can lift us up. We can choose.
SUMMARY: The first wave of how we work with stories focuses on influence. This is the most obvious power of story and storytelling, the ability to transmit potent and important ideas and concepts in such a way that people will take action. The two perspectives that fall under this first wave are story as a leadership practice and seeing self and story as positive change agents.It makes good sense for leaders to get proficient at telling stories, but they must also increase their skills at working with the stories already inherent in the systems they lead. In this way they can be a generative impact on the future story they want to lead into.
Thank you to Leo Roomets & the generosity of the Unsplash photography team!