Sink or Swim: The Story You Tell Matters

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A Community Contribution by Mark Rogers 

Leadership in companies is like a team of high-grade mariners in central command of their commercial vessels.

The power of storytelling traditions and techniques that leadership uses can navigate ships and employees directly into harm’s way, circumnavigate them around obstacles, or skillfully avoid an ill-fated voyage of monumental proportion altogether.

Toxic narratives often involve planned routes dominated by the perils of human hubris. And leaders who are unaware of the toxic narratives they perpetuate often navigate their companies into a haze dead ahead, with grazing icebergs and jagged underwater blind spots that can slash into the hull at the heart of a company.

Blind spots break trust

Blind spots are often simply views presumed to be real but not necessarily or actually real.

By the time leadership tours the damaged area in compartments like culture, performance management, and employee engagement, the bow of their doomed ship is alarmingly pitching downward, allowing water to pour from a bulkhead into adjacent compartments.

Toxic narratives begin with leadership seeing only what they want to believe, hearing only what they want to think. This modus operandi enables them to normalize dangerous ideas throughout their company. For example, workers aren’t “laid off,” they’re “right-sized”; forecasts aren’t “reduced,” they’re “adjusted”—and so on. Management finds narratives that allow them to ignore long-term sustainability in favor of short-term gain.

The second-order effect is that employees develop learned helplessness, operating without the tolerance and actual motivation necessary to create compelling and positive change. It’s a profound disconnect when employees do not feel that their leadership sees or understands an issue the way they do.

Leaders live by the stories they want to tell themselves about what is going wrong or right, sometimes even taking credit for initiatives developed by their employees. In the process, they graze the icebergs, slashing gashes in the culture right down to the hull below the waterline, and reinforcing learned helplessness in their staff.

For their part, employees avoid the “mutiny” of disagreements with their managers for fear of reprisal, and personal agendas take precedence over the long-term well-being of the company. Employees view decision-making as authoritarian. They assume passive-aggressive or defensive behaviors are expected in contrast to participative styles that are supposedly valued. Employee behavior and engagement (i.e., “morale”) becomes low and leads to other adverse outcomes. Short-term profit quickly becomes more valuable than people.

How often does leadership listen to the stories beyond their bubbles—the stories that are the authentic realities of all their major stakeholders? Many of us know from our own practical experiences with conventional business mindscapes that relations with stakeholders are informed by zero-sum, win-lose mental models.

Conscious Leadership is an inside job

“A business is a reflection of its people,” leadership pioneer Rand Stagen has said. “The people are a reflection of its leaders.” If executives want to transform businesses, he contends, they need to change and transform themselves first. Using storytelling as an enabler and force-multiplier helps Conscious Leaders—as captains of their commercial vessels—own responsibility for navigating their ships into smoother waters by anchoring cultural assumptions, beliefs, values, and norms to business goals.

Storytelling helps leadership and employees reboot the mind, see and lead in the dark, craft new realities, and build on existing strengths. When each person can openly say how they view a situation, and all perspectives can be shared without fear of retribution, then beautiful synergy can emerge.

Here are just a few tangible results storytelling can offer when used as a transformation architect in a corporation’s change processes:

  • Developing mindfulness (self-examination, self-reflection, introspection, and insight) within companies is the first step forward in achieving authentic higher purposes that serve, align, and integrate the interests of all major stakeholders.
  • Storytelling helps conscious leaders articulate purpose, particularly in unearthing and defining the values inherent in an organization. It focuses on the behavior change required to live in alignment with those values.
  • Understanding the cultural context in a company, including its cognitive orientation patterns and communication methods, is essential to bringing a company’s operations into alignment with its higher purpose.
  • Storytelling is grounded in the spirit of collaboration, guiding leadership and employees to work together to remove the disconnect between values (an ideal culture) and norms (current or actual culture) in a company.

Here’s an illustration of using storytelling as a transformation architect in a change process.

The leadership strategy and culture in an information technology company focused on “Trust Your Neighbor but Brand Your Stock.” Leadership compensation was weighted more toward incentives than base compensation to avoid the threat of the company having to manage for economic decline.

Employees didn’t see this perspective the same way. Leadership was using rank-and-yank systems, ranking employees’ performances against each other and terminating the employment of people at the lowest end of the ranking. Employees believed they were financial liabilities rather than assets. This environment wasn’t promoting authentic two-way dialogue about collective success moving forward.

Both sides knew neither was buying the other’s narrative. They were blaming each other for crippling the company’s bottom line. Leadership began “body shopping” the labor they wanted —hiring only to meet short-term needs and avoid long-term financial commitments to full-time hires.

Both leadership and employees knew there was more than one way to tell a story. Both sides needed to discover their story patterns. With the guidance of a consultant specializing in narrative perspective, leadership and employees began work to heal the rift using the power of storytelling. It was an inclusive strategy that invited all stakeholders to use their imagination in co-creating a more empowering story for helping the company create social value for everyone it touched.

Teams were brought together to share their assumptions and beliefs about what was happening, and then used this information to refine their narrative for communicating company goals and strategy to make them more relatable. Leaders were allowed to bring their personal stories into the process to ensure employees could relate on a personal level, which allowed all team members to become more accepting toward the changes required for a long-term vision.

Engaging employees in the dialogue aligned their efforts and also started building an inclusive environment they could comfortably connect with. They began respecting initiatives and doing everything in their power to make these opportunities a reality. Everyone began driving home the values they wanted to embed in the fabric of the company moving forward.

In the end, the power of storytelling traditions and storytelling techniques helped everyone focus on strengthening their own authenticity through self-knowledge and self-authorship. The process improved the quality and depth of leadership and employee’s self-awareness. This skill acquisition in itself created a dynamic of self-development throughout the company.

As leadership and employees moved beyond the old parchment maps they previously used to navigate, they relied more on their inner compass for direction—and, as a result, forever changed the course for their company.

As Robert Redford has said, “Storytellers broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately connect us.”

What’s your story?

How are you going to tell it?

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Mark brings together People, Cultures and Ideas — Mindshare is often More Important than Market Share.

Mark is the founder of Insights Without Borders (IWB), IWB Institute (IWBI), and IWBI-Coaching helping clients and their organizations to ask questions, discover a bandwidth of insights, and develop the skill sets on how to bring together people, cultures, and ideas to embrace and adopt change.

Mark’s cultural perspective is expansive having travelled across the globe to more than 30 countries. He leads IWB’s growth efforts by partnering with clients in co-creating transformational change with a combination of strategy, operational excellence, and innovative platforms across a broad range of industries.

Mark thinks big, works hard, and is a results-oriented leader with a passion for individual and organizational transformation. He has a full spectrum of experience managing complex change, coaching, leading performance improvement processes and initiatives, and co-creating roadmaps and programs for top-tier talent creating high-performing cultures consistently achieving in volatile markets.

Mark believes there’s more than one way to tell your story — discovering and working-through story patterns, not just the content.