"Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs"
Pearl Strachan, author
Our stories either build or break down relationships with others. At work, we interact with colleagues and hopefully create networks and build alliances. Every day in your business, there are a million interactions that will create either a positive or a negative dynamic among people. While these interactions may seem small, they begin to add up to a larger pattern. We are either spiraling up or down. We are either building a stronger sense of I or a stronger sense of WE.
Building Stories - Two Scenarios
Storytelling, like the words we use, comes naturally to human beings. Stories are how we share what we are seeing, feeling, and sensing inside. Storytelling is, in essence, our view of reality.
Storytelling begins as an I-centric capability enabling us to state and often defend our point of view. In organizational life, storytelling shapes the way we view the world individually and collectively, and it can have positive or negative consequences for the health of the enterprise. Learning how and when to shift from an 'I to a WE' perspective in the stories we tell is essential to organizational health and growth.
We create stories based on our point of view-based on our function, our title, and our respective level in the hierarchy. "Where we sit" can determine "where we stand." Because we each see the world through our respective lenses of experience and beliefs, it's not hard to understand how colleagues engaged in different functions or operating within different environments-even within the same organization-can come to tell their stories about the enterprise from the vantage points of their own separate silos.
Imagine you just joined a new company in a new position, and you have been given the responsibility for achieving success. Your predecessor was unable to pull it off, so you have some extra pressure to deliver results. Imagine you accept this responsibility and start your job tomorrow.
- What story are you telling yourself about this job, about your role, about what you want to accomplish?
- What story are you telling the new employees who will be meeting you for the first time? Your staff? Your customers?
Imagine the following situation, which I'll call Scenario 1. As you do your due diligence and make your assessment of the situation, you uncover concerns that you didn't see before. The talent seems to be light for the task ahead. You sense that the resource base is also light, and you realize that the job is bigger than you thought.
The business problems also seem bigger and you can't get your arms around them. You are new and believe you are supposed to be in charge of the situation. You decide not to share your fears and worries out of concern that others will think you are not capable of being a leader or are unable to handle the challenge. How will the story you hold inside, and the story you tell outside impact the future success of the business?
Your Story: The story you tell yourself in this scenario is that you need to be tough, and show confidence. Sharing your concerns will weaken your leadership, and asking for help or involvement will weaken your power.
Their Story: The story your direct reports tell each other is that you are not interested in their perspectives and are a command and control leader. They band together and are fearful of what you do, lack trust in your assessments and resist your approach.
As an alternative, let's look at Scenario 2. You come aboard, do your due diligence, and find problems are more difficult than you originally anticipated. You immediately bring your direct reports into your assessment and, with open and honest communication; you create an engagement process to build positive energy and focus. You include others in discovering new and exciting ways for building the business. In Scenario 2 you are more open and transparent with colleagues, you express your desire to create sustainable partnerships, and you are willing to coach and be coached to help yourself and others grow.
Your Story: The story you tell yourself in this scenario is that while you were hired to be the leader, you weren't hired to have all the answers alone.
Their Story: The story your direct reports tell each other is that you are an incredibly inclusive leader who really cares about their perspective, wisdom and insight.
We establish our power through our stories and story telling with others. Stories shape our sense of the world, our relationships, and our future. Stories communicate our aspirations, our hopes, our intentions, and our beliefs. Most importantly, stories convey the hopes and dreams we hold in our minds about the reality we believe we are living in or want to live in.
We tell our stories all day long. We tell them to customers, to colleagues, and to our friends and family. But the person we tell our stories to most of all is ourself.
Human beings have the power and ability to make up dramatic stories with any conceivable ending. Our stories can portray a future full of promise and accomplishment or one that is dark and empty. It's all stuff we first make up and then come to believe. Once we believe our story, we live it out the way we visualize it in our minds.
Like it or not, we are storytellers. Our main audience is us; and our life develops from the stories we create. In other words, if we wake up one morning to discover that our finances have been wiped out because we purchased a bad stock, our story could become that we are a loser and stupid, or we could tell a story of our ability to take risks and go after the Big One. Our stories influence how we see ourselves and how we approach the life challenges that come next. Stories can empower or dis-empower our life journey.
How are You Using Story Telling at Work?
Think about the power of stories to shape your future. How are you using story telling at work? Scan and monitor your stories and reflect on how you are using stories to either lift you up or push others down. Are your stories I-centric or WE-centric?
Are you using story telling to:
- Prove you are right?
- Build stronger relationships?
- Inspire people to step into new challenges?
- Break from the past and create the future?
- Blame others and make them bad in the eyes of others?
- Build people up and make them feel great about themselves?
Reflect on your story telling process and keep track of the themes that show up in your stories.
In the next issues we'll talk about the neuroscience behind story telling!
Judith E. Glaser is the Author of two best selling business books:
Creating WE: Change I-Thinking to We-Thinking & Build a Healthy Thriving Organization - winner of the Bronze Award in the Leadership Category of the 2008 Axiom Business Book Awards, and The DNA of Leadership; the DVD and Workshop titled The Leadership Secret of Gregory Goose; and editor and contributor of 42 Rule for Creating WE, a newly published Amazon bestseller.
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