Over lunch, a manager tells a funny anecdote to his team about how he handled a difficult customer. Over the phone, Laura explains to her colleague how she saw their disagreement in that day’s discussion. In a product launch, a chief executive officer shares a vision of what the organisation will look like in the future.
Each of these examples reveals the commonness of storytelling in our lives. We continuously create and share stories of what happened, why, and what might happen next, replete with a cast of characters, multiple plots and drama. Stories help us make sense of our past and understand the present.
Sharing experiences via storytelling is emerging as an effective way to exchange and consolidate knowledge at the workplace. Storytelling has been an ancient means of passing on wisdom. It builds trust, cultivates norms, transfers tacit knowledge, and facilitates unlearning and emotional connections.
The power of stories
In the 1980s, while looking for ways to boost the productivity of the Xerox field service staff, Xerox launched a study of their work before deciding how to proceed. An anthropologist travelled with a group of tech representatives (reps) to observe how they actually did their jobs.
The anthropologist saw that tech reps often made it a point to spend time not with customers but with each other, swapping stories from the field. Where a “re-engineer” would see this behaviour as unproductive, the anthropologist saw the exact opposite.
The tech reps were not slacking off; they were doing some of their most valuable work. The tech reps were not just repairing machines; they were also co-producing insights about how to repair machines better.
This discovery triggered a revolutionary change in how Xerox organised and managed the tech reps – no longer as independent workers but as a social learning unit.
Interestingly, through its telling and retelling to other companies, this story has prompted something of a revolution in management principles more suitable for the knowledge era.
Stories can be a very effective way to represent and convey complex ideas. Well-designed and well-told stories can convey both information and emotion, both the explicit and the tacit, and both the core and the context.
In organisations, storytelling has been identified as a means to:
• Share values: Stories convey values effectively across generations within the organisation. Leaders should offer a compelling and robust vision through stories that emphasise the more empowering aspects of an organisation’s past and place them in context for the future, thus facilitating the identification of future opportunities.
• Develop trust and commitment: At work, stories of commendation or complaint about other people communicate their sense of reliability and trustworthiness to others. Similarly, stories about the organisation and management can convey information about the organisation’s trustworthiness vis-à-vis its employees, which can reinforce or undermine employee commitment.
• Share tacit knowledge: A story is “a tiny fuse that detonates tacit understanding in the mind of the listener.” The canonical wisdom and knowledge of the organisation, which are built into formal processes, are insufficient to meet the needs of problems that arise in the real world. Stories about the work convey such tacit knowledge in a more manageable and absorbable fashion.
• Facilitate unlearning: We need to unlearn practices and mental frames, which we do not even realise we rely on, that shape our whole perspective. Rational arguments are insufficient to accomplish change; stories can be effective to convince us of our tacit understanding.
• Cultivate emotional connection: Stories have the inherent capacity to engage our emotions because they are about the irregularities in our lives, about things and situations that catch our attention by being different from what is expected.
Stories of the unexpected prompt emotional responses because they suggest the potential threat of not being in control of our lives, but simultaneously offer a way of understanding and responding to our future.
The traps of knowledge-sharing stories
Despite their power, stories can fall short in achieving their intended purpose (e.g. to improve performance or change behaviour) due to its:
• Seductiveness: Stories can be so compelling, seductive and vivid that listeners absorb the whole ‘truth’ of the stories and are sidetracked from their real purpose.
• Single point of view: When told from a single perspective of an individual, it may be less directly relevant to the activities and concerns of many other individuals. Thus, the story loses its power to connect with them.
• Static-ness: The impact of a story is likely to vary depending on its delivery, who is the storyteller and whether it is shared in verbal or written form.
How stories add up
There are also various other strategies or modes to achieve similar outcomes:
• Storytelling: Sharing of knowledge and experiences through narrative and anecdotes in order to communicate lessons, complex ideas, concepts and connections.
• Modelling: Sharing of knowledge and experience through exposure to the behaviour of others, e.g. through mentoring, apprenticeship, symbolic conduct, and specific demonstrations and opportunities for observation.
• Simulations: Sharing of knowledge and experience through experiential situations that recreate the complexities of action, e.g. case studies, role-playing and simulations.
• Codified resources: Sharing of knowledge through reference to formal, systematic and structured sources, e.g. manuals, standard operating procedures, instructions, memos or databases.
• Symbolic objects: Sharing of knowledge through access and exposure to images, diagrams or objects, which represent or illustrate the underlying knowledge or idea.
DuPont, an industrial chemicals manufacturing organisation well known for its safety record, deploys all the modes mentioned when conveying the organisation’s norms and values regarding safe practices to new and existing employees.
Employees are provided with instructions for safe operating procedures (codified resources). They are also guided to appropriate behaviour by prominent signs such as “Hard hat area” or “Safety glasses required” (symbolic objects), or by observing their supervisors wearing the appropriate safety gear (modelling). In regular “safety meetings”, the local workgroups review different aspects of their work and intentionally explore better and safer ways to operate (simulation).
Accidents are analysed, documented and circulated to the whole company in a narrative, describing the accident, the painful outcome, the violated safe practice and the recommended response for similar situations (storytelling).
Identifying the right opportunity
Some situations lend themselves more naturally to stories and can therefore leverage their knowledge-sharing potential better, e.g. when:
• Kick-starting a new idea: When starting a new project, such as product launching, crafting a new vision for a group, or creating a new business unit, stories are concise ways to get things going.
• Socialising with new members: When new members enter a group or culture, stories are effective ways of communicating values and principles. Leaders might tell a story of the founder to new hires to set a tone of innovation.
• Mending relationships: Situations that call for the reparation of loyalty, trust or commitment are highly suited for stories. A research in “narrative therapy” demonstrates how the telling and listening to our individual stories, as well as the stories of others, can repair trust and commitments (White, 1995).
Tips with stories
When designing and telling stories, be clear on why you’re sharing them. Stories from colleagues give deep clues about tacit fears and “undiscussable” assumptions.
Listening “between the lines” of complaints, challenges, successes and general anecdotes of others can reveal guiding principles and vital clues to leadership about employee attitudes and feelings. Sharpening one’s story-listening skills can translate into a more accurate map of the collective under-standing and commitment of others at the workplace.