Insight article

A system of stories: weaving stories into organisations

Have you ever wondered why it is that parents and caregivers spend so much time telling stories to children? They are teaching them values and morals but in a way that children can connect with: they feel the story and are able to internalise what they’re hearing rather than if they were simply told what to do and how to act.

To lead and influence people, you must have ethoslogos, and pathos. Ethos is character or credibility, which is necessary if you want people to believe what you say. Logos is about the logic or reason of your argument. Pathos is about emotion. A good story inherently has ethos, logos, and pathos. If one of those elements are missing, it either fails to take us along for the ride or leaves us feeling disengaged and unsatisfied. In our world today, we can observe the impact of populist narratives that are severed from ethos or logos, and instead fueled almost purely by pathos. Pathos is the engine room of action – but it must be values-based and checked by its cool headed counterparts to drive positive outcomes.

In the world of business, where logos has long reigned supreme, pathos and ethos are still under-utilised tools. It’s not uncommon in business, negotiations, law, and politics to hear the advice: “leave emotion out of it.”  Yet emotions can be leaders’ greatest asset. The range of human emotions is wide and deep, and effective leaders access emotion to connect with those they hope to inspire. They guide us in our decisions and choices; it’s through emotion that we learn what we care about– and through emotion that we are most often compelled to act. Consider that the root of the word emotionis the Latin mot, which means move. It’s no surprise that motivation shares this root. We are motivated by that which moves us to act. This is why, at The Storytellers, ‘move’ is an important word: core to both our purpose (to move people to do great things) and the value we bring to businesses in moving people to accelerate change and transform performance.

Pathos fosters motivation and builds connection between people and their leaders. But for what they say to mean anything at all, leaders must first establish their credibility through ethos. Positional power is no longer enough; we want leaders to show moral credibility and demonstrate their values through action. In this time of heated identity politics, the values we subscribe to as individuals and collectives is arguably more important for leaders to express than ever.

Ethos is also core to the way we engage with, and learn from, our leaders. Across cultures, children’s stories tend to culminate with a clearly articulated moral. As we get older, we outgrow the need for an explicit moral, yet we never stop drawing lessons and morals from the stories we hear. We gravitate towards characters who are complex and conflicted because we relate to them and learn from them: they feel human. It’s true that sometimes they make choices we wish they wouldn’t. But in a good story, we have a solid sense of who the person is, how they think, and what they feel. We can learn from both their successes and mistakes because we understand how they got there, what drove their choices, and how we might act in similar situations. Both “good” and “bad” choices teach us something – about the character and ourselves. We watch them wrestle with their values, and we learn about the type of people we could be and the choices we should make.

And expressing shared values is very good for business. Professor Paul Ingram’s work on values in business and leadership found that employees experience a huge motivational boost when their values are recognised – comparable to a 40% increase in salary. He also found that leaders who stay closely tied to their personal values seem more authentic and tend to make more ethical decisions.

As the way we work changes, values become more important than ever to sustain strong cultures. We’re witnessing the increasing gig economy, start-ups that grow from the ground up, open work spaces, remote teams and virtual environments. These days, organisations seem less like machines with a central control system, and more like organisms or ecosystems with interdependent parts working autonomously toward a common goal. Strong values and clear purpose give organisations the coherence and clarity to embrace decentralised working and flattening hierarchies without losing their collective identity. Finding a way to stay connected to this purpose and these values feels more important than ever before. And this is why stories are so important.

If we think of organisations as ecosystems, then storytelling should not only reside on the organisational level; it should permeate the whole system, from the level of the individual to the level of leadership. If people feed the story then the story feeds the people, and thus, a virtuous cycle is created. Inspiration both precedes action and comes from action. We often think of it preceding action: of course we must feel inspired before embarking on some new endeavor; interestingly though, the process continues feeding itself. Once we have taken action and seen results (whether successful or not), we are often re-inspired to continue on, to persevere, and to stay committed.

As a leader, it’s obvious that you need to know whether or not your people have done what they’re supposed to do; less obvious though, is that people also need to know whether or not things happened, as a way for them to mark the successes and failures of their teams and their work. Crafting an evolving organisational narrative is a way to continually maintain inspiration: incorporate stories of successes and challenges, and allow the story to be a living, breathing account of what is actually happening in the organisation.

For Individuals: When we take the time to connect with our own stories and understand our own why, we learn to identify and articulate the values that drive us. We constantly hear that the Millennial generation is one driven by purpose, but really, aren’t we all? To understand why we care about our work helps us make that emotional connection to it, which is both empowering and motivating. On the individual level, understanding our personal stories can lead to clarity of purpose and direction with an invigorated sense of passion for our work.

Within Teams: Storytelling within a team helps build solid relationships and creates a positive team culture. It may feel like a luxury (or a farce) to build in “story time” for teams, but it is definitely time well spent. The most effective teams I’ve worked on have been led by bosses who created conditions for us to connect not only as colleagues but as people. We scheduled 1:1 meetings in the beginning to share our stories, we had regular check-ins with the team, we celebrated challenges and victories together, and over time, our connection to ourselves, to each other, and to our work continued to develop. Real relationships help people invest in each other, creating the space for trust and healthy conflict, which ultimately leads to better, more creative ideas.

Crafting a shared narrative also allows teams to identify clear roles for working together; when you can see how your role fits with the roles of others within the bigger story, it creates a team culture of interdependence and accountability. Stories situate us between the past and the future: knowing who our teammates are and what they care about helps us see where we’ve come from as a group, and where we’re heading. When a collective narrative is built on the values and experiences of its members, it’s much easier for people to connect to it and feel a sense of ownership. You can respond and adapt more quickly to change because you don’t need to stop and ask about everything; you feel confident making autonomous decisions knowing they’re well aligned with the goals and mission of the organisation.

Across Teams: Between teams, storytelling can establish common ground and a shared language for effective collaboration. Stories promote understanding across difference; when cross-functional teams work together, articulating what they are doing and why through stories fosters clear communication and understanding. As teams continue working together, they are ultimately weaving together a larger, macro-level narrative, which is beneficial for the teams themselves, and also for the development of the organisation.

There is so much data being collected everywhere today, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Unfortunately, this data, which could be incredibly valuable for people all throughout organisations, isn’t shared as widely as it could be. It can be challenging to communicate the data in a way that feels meaningful and relatable to people who are not close to the research. So, tell a story. Stories are a great vehicle of data translation. The process of crafting a compelling story requires synthesis and understanding, and hearing the story then allows people to absorb and process the data more experientially. If they can feelthe impact of the data and care about it in some way, then the information is all the more useful.

Communicating high-level ideas in an accessible way shouldn’t be considered dumbing down, but rather meeting people where they are. And isn’t that really the point of collecting the data in the first place – to share it as widely as possible?

In his book “The Sense of Style,” Steven Pinker says academics tend to write in complex ways to maintain a level of status, when they could (and arguably should) be sharing their valuable research in a simpler, more accessible way. Stories communicate complex ideas in simple terms – a single moment in a story can offer deep lessons, identify clear tensions, carry subtle nuance, and teach a moral all at once. A cohesive narrative helps everyone stay on the same page, moving in the same direction.

In Leadership: Leadership is a capability not a position and it can be developed on any level. That said, however, there still exist certain positions that carry a certain level of power and influence, and leaders in these roles can benefit tremendously from the power of storytelling. When a leader seeks out the stories of those around them, it not only makes them more accessible, it also enhances their ability to strategize.

Growing up across continents, I’ve spent most of my life moving in and out of new cultural environments. In each new place, survival meant adaptation, and I learned firsthand the value of understanding context as a first priority. It’s impossible to know how something should be changed before you know what it’s about, who it affects, the context that shaped it, and how it plays out in practice. While this may seem intuitive, haven’t we all dealt with the outsider who comes in claiming they know what’s best for us?

When leaders listen to personal stories of the organisation, it serves two important functions. Leaders can see the larger macro-narrative of the organisation as a whole, and people feel that their voices are being heard and that they matter. The pulse of an organisation is in its stories. Leaders should look to stories as a source of strategic planning: What stories are you hearing? Which ones are most frequently repeated? By whom? What stories aren’tyou hearing that you would like to be hearing?

Stories and strategy are linked. A leader who really listens, noticing both what is present and absent in the stories they hear, has a better sense of the reality on the ground, and can identify the gaps of where and how they should strategize.

Leaders who share their own stories have the power to build more trusting, authentic relationships.Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy, who researches warmth and trust in leadership, says these two traits are incredibly valuable in good leadership. In the Harvard Business Review article “Connect, Then Lead,” Cuddy and her colleagues share that “…research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.” They explain that building trust in organisations also “increases information sharing, openness, fluidity, and cooperation… and facilitates the exchange and acceptance of ideas.”

Though we often hear about the power of vulnerability, leaders still hesitate to show too much, fearing they may be seen as incompetent. But admitting that you see gaps and don’t yet know the answers is not a sign of weakness; rather, it shows trust and humility. It’s an invitation for others with expertise and knowledge to step forth and add to the existing narrative, serving to empower more people and gaining buy-in along the way.

When Jim Ryan, the former Dean of the Graduate School of Education, began his tenure at Harvard, he started out with a listening tour: for six months, he led with curiosity. He took time to listen and learn from people throughout the organisation and across various functions as to how things worked, who people were, and how he could best serve the organisation. He also opened up himself, honestly sharing parts of his own story, and offering open office hours for students, staff, and faculty to come meet him, ask questions, and share their own stories. It’s no surprise that Dean Ryan created huge and lasting impact during his tenure.

Storytelling of this kind also fuels innovation. Several years ago, Amy Edmundson, of Harvard Business School, coined the term psychological safety. “In psychologically safe environments”, she writes, “people believe that if they make a mistake others will not penalize or think less of them for it… will not resent or penalize them for asking for help, information or feedback.”

In a world that prizes continuous discovery, this kind of environment is essential; if people don’t feel a sense of psychological safety, they’re much less likely to take risks, make mistakes, or learn, and ultimately, the organisation suffers. If storytelling is a valued mechanism in an organisation, it can establish channels of knowledge-sharing where people can learn from the successes and failures of leaders and peers alike.

An organisational story locates the organisation on a trajectory, so it is always in motion, from somewhere to somewhere – it does not stay still: it’s not stagnant or in a vacuum. People can rally around a good story! And as organisations learn and grow, they must constantly evolve; if storytelling is woven throughout various levels of an organisation, it fosters engagement, consistency, and plasticity.

Storytelling also brings humor and lightness to serious work, which can enhance organisational culture and prevent burn-out. As humans, we depend on humor, creativity, and joy to keep us buoyant in challenging and uncertain times. Organisations are no different.

 

Sources:

Cuddy, Amy, J.C., Kohut, Matthew, & Neffinger, J. (July-August, 2013). Connect, Then Lead. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2013/07/connect-then-lead

Edmundson, A. (2002). Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams.In West, M. (Ed.). International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork, London: Blackwell.

Columbia Business School Executive Education, Ideas at Work. (October 4, 2018). Putting a Price on Principles.https://www8.gsb.columbia.edu/articles/ideas-work/putting-price-principle

Anita Krishnan

Associate
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