Though rarely appearing in a job description, understanding and tapping the power of stories effectively and ethically are vital tasks for senior managers and leaders in organisations. The spoken word brings people into each other’s presence. A good story not only engages the imagination of the listener but also reveals the speaker’s passion (or lack of it). It is a “moment of truth” that reveals far more than the words alone: tellers and listeners meet each other in a profoundly human way.
Facts inform, and arguments can persuade but a well-told story can reach out and inspire. There are many circumstances in which this can help: here are seven by way of illustration.
Communicating vision and purpose
Stories are the most powerful way of articulating and communicating vision and purpose. Remember Martin Luther King’s famous speech: he did not present a five-point plan for improving race relations (complete with powerpoint presentation). Instead, he told the story of his dream of a time when black children and white children would be judged not by the colour of their skin but by their character and abilities. By doing so, by exercising what we might call “narrative leadership” he touched the hearts and minds of a generation.
Action: We coach individual leaders and leadership teams to find and tell authentic stories that communicate vision and purpose in ways that help others find their own meaning and sense of significance in the way ahead.
Imagining future possibilities
Conventional strategic planning attempts to forecast the future rationally and determine the steps to be taken towards a particular goal. But we can only put energy into what we can imagine. Story techniques offer another perspective, enabling us to take an imaginative leap into a future from which we can “backcast” to see the steps that will have been taken to reach there. A good story extends our sense of the possible. The richer the picture and the more evocative the story, the more it can help bring that future into being.
Action: We work with leaders and leadership teams to create rich and powerful future stories to guide strategy development and change management. We also help organisations find and spread stories of successful front-line change initiatives peer-to-peer.
Developing personal authority
Leaders, managers and change agents of all kinds are more effective when they understand more deeply how their personal authority is evoked by the stories they tell. And this requires a significant shift from relying on the theoretical or on an unreflective mirroring of ‘how things are done around here’, to individually developing their authority and authentic ‘personal narrative’, communicating their story of who they are and what they contribute to the wider purposes of organisational and life. Personal authority grows when we can articulate clearly ‘who I am and what I bring’.
Action: We help people connect with what they are ‘in service of’ and to tell authentic personal narratives to show their genuine commitment to the goals and aspirations of the groups and organisations they lead.
Building effective teams
Doing good work at senior level requires effective teams whose members know and trust each other. In organisations where time is scarce and the pressure to perform is intense, we sometimes try to accelerate this process by management “awaydays” and retreats. But all too often the results are shallow and transitory. One of the enduring ways we create human communities is by sharing our personal stories and by listening to others. Healthy communities (and effective teams) stay open to new and different stories and enable everyone to have a voice.
Action: We work with many senior and top teams using a wide variety of bespoke designs to help members engage with each other – and with the business at hand – at a deeper, more honest and more human level. At the heart of our methodology is the transformative power of story.
Diagnosing and changing culture
Most culture change efforts fail and one of the most common reasons is the reification of organisational culture (as if it were a thing to be operated upon) and consequent failure to address the underlying issues. Personal and organisational stories reveal the behaviours, values, beliefs, and assumptions that actively constitute the culture and the contradictions between what is espoused and what gets enacted day-to-day. Successful change efforts pay attention to these stories and work hard to shift them.
Action: We design and run story-gathering workshops across organisations to develop an understanding of organisational culture grounded in people’s lived experience. Opening things up in this way begins to change the nature of conversation in the organisation.
Capturing and sharing knowledge
In fast-moving environments, especially when there is rapid turnover of key staff, organisational memory quickly evaporates and hard won expertise lost. Research in the field of knowledge management highlights the crucial role of exchanging stories in the sharing and development of “know-how” especially in complex and difficult situations. There are other kinds of vitally important knowledge (short-term and long-term) embedded at a whole-system level that can only be revealed by forms of systematic narrative inquiry.
Action: We use a variety of story and narrative-based techniques to help clients learn from critical incidents (facilitating the exchange of anecdotal information) and longer term issues (e.g. learning histories). We also sometimes use traditional stories or myths to help organisations explore current issues.
Working with conflict
When we are stuck in conflict or caught up in the same old bind, we can gain perspective and leverage on the problem by using story to step outside the immediate situation. This way of working draws on recent developments in narrative therapy which help people better understand the influence a problem has over them and ways in which they can gain influence over the problem. Through stories we can lower our defences and laugh at the ridiculous, acknowledging outmoded and unhelpful ways of being and doing things – in ourselves and in others.
Action: We use story techniques to help clients tell real life anecdotes and stories about difficult and conflictual situations and sometimes to fictionalise real characters and situations to open up new possibilities for action and conflict resolution.