On the high Art of Organizational Storytelling

The study of organizational storytelling, sometimes called “Narrative Knowledge,” attempts to recount events in the form of a story within the context of an organization. It is an emerging discipline in the fields of management, strategy and organization studies.
Storytelling has long been a feature of human societies, groups and organizations. Stories are pithy narratives with plots, characters and twists that can be full of meaning. While some stories may be pure fiction, others are inspired by real events. Their relation to such events, however, is tenuous – in stories, accuracy is almost always sacrificed for effect. Stories entertain, inform, advise, warn and educate. They often pass moral judgments on events, casting their characters in roles like hero, villain, fool and victim. They are capable of stimulating strong emotions of sympathy, anger, fear, anxiety and so forth.

Whether in or out of organizations, people often recount experiences in story-like forms and listen to stories of others. By placing themselves at the center of our stories, they seek to make sense of these experiences, whether happy, trying or painful. Organizational theorists have now become aware that much learning in organizations takes place through storytelling; this is sometimes referred to as narrative knowledge. They have also realized that there is much we can learn by studying the stories that people tell about each other and about the organization as a whole. Stories can open windows into the cultural, political and emotional lives of organizations, allowing people to express deep and sometimes hidden or conflicting emotions.

In recent years, numerous consultants have turned to stories as vehicles for enhancing organizational communication, performance and learning, as well as the management of change. While the success of these approaches is qualified, there can be little doubt that, in the hands of imaginative leaders, educators, gurus and prophets, stories are powerful devices for managing meaning.

Storytelling and research into organizations
Organizational theory has been late in taking an interest in stories that people tell in and about organizations (e.g. Denning 2007). The functions of stories for group cohesion or for relieving tedium and tension have been noted, but it is only recently that the importance of stories in organizational research has started to be recognized. In the first place, there is a recognition that organizations are not story-free bureaucratic spaces; storytelling is an important organizational phenomenon in its own right, which merits research attention. It is now becoming acceptable to talk of organizational lore which may be studied in ways similar to the study of folklore. As the study of language, discourse and text have assumed center-place in their discipline, organizational theorists have turned to stories, jokes and myths, the stock in trade of ethnographers and folklorists, as vital ingredients of organizations.

The study of organizational storytelling, however, goes beyond the analysis of folklore, interesting as this is in its own right. By collecting stories in a particular organization, by listening and comparing different accounts, by investigating how narratives are constructed around specific events, by examining which events in an organization’s history generate stories and which ones fail to do so, we gain access to deeper organizational realities, closely linked to their members’ experiences. In this way, stories enable us to study organizational politics, culture and change in uniquely illuminating ways, revealing how wider organizational issues are viewed, commented upon and worked upon by their members.

In telling a story, the requirements of accuracy and veracity are relaxed in the interest of making a symbolic point. Poetic license is the prerogative of storytelling. At the same time, by shrouding a point in symbolic terms, stories are able to evade censors, both internal and external, and express views and feelings which may be unacceptable in straight talk. Criticizing one’s superior may be frowned upon in most organizations, but a joke at his/her expense is less so. A story or a tale is a way of ‘testing the water’ to see whether others feel like the story teller, reading the same meaning into events. The teller of a joke or a story can always fall back on the defense “It was only a joke/story!“.

Stories in organizations are defined in different ways. Some definitions extend stories in different directions, seeking to encompass many types of meaningful text or discourse under the category of a story. A company logo, the shining surface of a car, a piece of graffiti and an academic textbook may then all be seen as stories. Gabriel has argued that such definitions do not do justice to the specific qualities inherent in stories understood in a narrower way. He accordingly defines stories as: “narratives with plots and characters, generating emotion in narrator and audience, through a poetic elaboration of symbolic material. This material may be a product of fantasy or experience, including an experience of earlier narratives. Story plots entail conflicts, predicaments, trials and crises which call for choices, decisions, actions and interactions, whose actual outcomes are often at odds with the characters’ intentions and purposes.” (compare Gabriel 2000)

Thus, stories are seen as emotionally and symbolically charged narratives; they do not present information or facts about ‘events’, but they enrich, enhance and infuse facts with meaning. This is both their strength and a potential weakness. For stories will often compromise accuracy in the interest of making a point or generating an emotion; they may focus on the incidental details, remaining stubbornly silent about what a researcher may regard as vital clues; they may contain inconsistencies, imprecisions, lacunae, non-sequiturs, illogicalities and ambiguities. Ultimately, the truth of a story lies not in its accuracy but in its meaning.

Researchers who want to use stories as a research instrument must be prepared to sacrifice at least temporarily some of the core values of their trade and adopt instead a rather alien attitude towards their respondents and their texts. They must rid themselves of the assumption that quality data are objective, reliable, accurate etc. and must be prepared to engage with the emotions and the meanings which reside in the text. The very recognition that a narrative constitutes or is moving towards becoming a story rather than being a factual account depends on such an emotional engagement. Faced with distortions and ambiguities, researchers must resist the temptation of ‘setting the record straight’; instead, they must learn to relish the text, seeking to establish the narrative needs, and through them the psychological and organizational needs, which distortions, ambiguities and inaccuracies serve.

In this way, organizational researchers become fellow-travelers on the narrative, engaging with it emotionally, displaying interest, empathy and pleasure in the storytelling process. They do not risk alienating the storyteller by seeming to doubt the narrative or by placing him under cross-examination, but conspires to detach the narrative from the narrowness of the discourse of facts, guiding it instead in the direction of free-association, reverie and fantasy. Contradictions and ambiguities in the narrative are accepted with no embarrassment. Ambiguity lies at the heart of many stories, displaying an individual’s ambivalent feelings or partial knowledge or understanding. While the researcher may ask for clarification of particular aspects of the story, the storyteller must feel that such clarification is asked in the interest of increased pleasure and empathy rather than in the form of pedantic inquiry.

The study of organizational storytelling is an emerging discipline in the fields of management, strategy and organization studies. As an emerging discipline it is contested ground; some practitioners have been more interested in describing it is a purposeful tool to be used by business people, leaders and managers. Some academics are cynical about attempts to turn storytelling into a communication tool at the disposal of those who already have power. They argue that contrived or manufactured stories tend to generate anti-stories, provoking cynicism, mistrust and ridicule.

Overall, when storytelling is skillful and authentic, it can be used to lead downwards, upwards and sideways in a variety of hierarchical settings, including organizations, politics, schools or families. It can be used to achieve a variety of purposes, including sparking action, communicating who you are, transmitting the brand, sharing knowledge, getting collaboration, transmitting values, taming the grapevine or leading people into the future. Given the scarcity of alternative rhetorical devices to achieve these objectives, the choice is not so much whether or not to use storytelling, but rather whether or not to use it skillfully and authentically. These organizational stories capture attention, excite imagination, and while being not value neutral, they tend to moralize and pass-judgment. Organizational storytelling has become increasingly popular method of inquiry because it allows researchers to get a sense of the culture of an organization and to record otherwise tacit knowledge.

Recommended readings (this time in German language):


No matter if you are a child or a business man – stories are the vehicles of the messages we need to develop. (Image source: http://www.simplyzesty.com)

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