Organizations are awash with stories. Understanding their usefulness and purpose can serve a human resource practitioner well if done correctly and with a little knowledge.
Stories serve as organizational histories and reinforce organizational culture. Stories can be elicited by structured events but are often present in normal everyday interactions.
In situations as simple as a lunchtime conversation with a fellow employee or banter before a meeting, stories are told – and through that company culture and ideals are reinforced or changed.
Beyond their practical use in organizations, stories serve a human purpose.
They help people process and understand complex situations. Stories can be used to make sense of something, and, throughout history, humans have used stories to pass along culture and knowledge.
What makes up a story? Are they all the same?
What we sometimes call a story is not always a story. Sometimes tales that begin as simple stories solidify into narratives. It is helpful to understand the difference.
Stories are the interpretations of our daily interactions with our environment. Often, they are personal and drawn on first person-accounts and histories of the individual. They can convey real accounts of work in the trenches of the organization.
Stories are unique and ever-changing. They may be told differently each time you tell them, depending on the situation and audience. These stories are powerful, as they adapt to the situation at hand.
Have you ever intended to tell a story, but chose not to at the last minute? Or told a story and wondered why you chose to tell that story? That is part of what is meant when storytellers tell of stories being alive.
Narratives, on the other hand, are told the same way each time. They are stories that have solidified into a snapshot of history and often are used to convey specific meaning or history.
Think of the orientation video or the “company founding story.” That is a narrative. It is solidified, but also used as a tool to get across ideas and concepts.
Narratives also convey a company culture to people outside the organization. Many of us have heard positive things about places such as Southwest Airlines, Ben & Jerry's and Google.
Sometimes a narrative does not match the story. Perhaps the narrative is of a pro-employee organization. When we hear stories that don't match the narrative, often it is news. The stories of people do not match the narrative that is being told. Conversely, the stories can reinforce the narrative we hear.
An adept human resource professional can harness stories and narratives to the advantage of the organization. Care must be taken though not to rob these stories of their essence. You must strive to keep them organic and respectful of the storyteller.
If you tell a story, care must be taken to ensure trust in the story and in you, the storyteller. Here are some guidelines to make the best use of it:
Get permission from the subject of the story to tell it. This is especially true if the story involves someone's first-person account.
Allow the story to change as the situation changes. Have you ever been in a group and told a story and asked yourself “Why did I tell that story?” or “Why didn't I tell this other story?” Based on the audience and situation, a story may decide to come out or not.
Avoid locking the story into a box. When this occurs, the story becomes a narrative. It ceases to be a changing and alive story, and becomes something like the founders' story or history of the organization. Those are told the same way each time with little change. They ceased to be organic and alive.
Stories can be very powerful. They are personal histories and interpretations of what we see and experience. They can capture the moment and give you a feel for the health of an organization.
After hearing the stories in your organization, use proper judgment in acting on information. If done correctly, stories can increase employee engagement and morale.
If used improperly, for means of control or manipulation, stories can damage your reputation and cause people to lose trust in you as a manager.