Once upon a time : From story teller to story maker

It would seem that storytelling is in vogue! Just google the term and you’ll find courses and workshops galore. It’s the next gravy train in the long line of management fads.

Story telling is a potent change management ‘tool’ in that it reconnects people with our oral roots, evokes visual images and heightens emotions in the workplace.

Going deeper

The current trend however seems to be on developing leaders to be storytellers, using the ‘transmission’ model of communication. For me, this only scratches the surface of the potential of storying.

Stories are powerful because they have, and appeal to, a moral logic that contain patterns of felt obligations for action. Storytelling, therefore, is a way of creating a sense of what may be required, prohibited, or permitted in a particular organisational setting (sometimes referred to as ‘culture’).

People use language intentionally, or unintentionally to alter the context and to re-story events. Therefore, sustainable change is more likely when equal attention is paid to recognising/legitimising the voice/s and stories of everyone using the social construction (co-creation) approach to communication.

Human experience of reality is mediated by communication in the sense that, the way we use language shapes our perceptions, relationships and organisations. In a recent tweet, my former tutor, Ken Gergen said: “To speak of “myself” suggests an independent “you.” Without “you,” “I” am lost. Existence is born in relationship.”  While I personally wouldn’t go this far, I do see that social reality is born in relationship. If this is true, then how we use story in communication has the potential to both, influence our perception of current reality and, create future possibilities for change.

Music to my ears!

I love the notion that organisations are “polyphonic”, that is, they are made up by a chorus of voices, each with its own story, ie singing a different tune, different genre, with a different rhythm in a distinct key.

In this way of thinking, the challenge for organising becomes how to coordinate multiple voices within organisational life in ways that create a harmonious sound.


We can expect one’s voice to be rich with the influence of other voices, a complex weaving together of the multiple voices of others. “I am because you are”.

What this suggests is that leaders need to develop sensitivity toward understanding how the voice they choose to speak from creates different patterns of authority and accountability for self and others within situations. (Eg, “this is your captain speaking”, boss, friend, fellow learner, coach, mentor, etc.)

In corporate sense making, developing a sensitivity to the patterns of authority and accountability that get created when particular voices are employed, needs to be followed by deciding how to blend voices within a situation. A friend of mine, Kevin Barge, a professor from Texas University calls this “dialogical” wisdom.

Dialogical wisdom is the ability to make situated judgements about when to bring out the multiple voices present, when to unify multiple voices, when to harmonize multiple voices, when to foreground one voice and background others, and when to juxtapose voices in ways that clash and oppose one another.

Just like the leader of a jazz band, a leader needs to develop the ability to know when to create conversational space where all, some, or one voice is heard. For example, there may be conditions when bringing out all voices present within a situation is counterproductive. When a leader is responsible for a decision and has expertise in the issue that other team members do not possess, it may be better for the leader to privilege his or her voice and make the decision—even at the risk of ignoring team members’ ideas and input, eg, “there is a fire, get out now!”

A great way of looking a ‘stories’ 

I’d like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the great, late Barnett BarnettPearce, who I had the great privilege of meeting a few times in London and in the States. Barnett worked with the notion that stories are how we make sense of our social world. In a model he calls ‘Coordinated Management of Meaning’ (CMM), he proposed the acronym LUUUTT, which provides a way of understanding different kinds of stories:

Stories: Lived; Unknown stories; Untold stories; Unheard stories; Stories Told; Story Telling.

Unlike the ‘transmission’ model, CMM deals with ‘how’ the stories are told rather than their content, narrative features, or place in the conversational interchange.

For Barnett, “the way that people communicate, along with the content of what we say, shapes how we feel about ourselves, the person speaking, and even others who are not in the room. The way we talk and the people to whom we talk creates, sustains, and sometimes destroys relationships, organizations, and communities”.

According to him, one one way to make sense of pre-existing meanings that people use is through stories because they typically include and tie together the following ingredients:

Agents: the people who figure in the story;

Predicament: the problem the agents are trying to solve;

Intentions: what the agents plan to do;

Actions: what the agents do to achieve their intentions;

Objects: the tools the agents will use;

Causality: the effects (both intended and unintended) of carrying out actions;

Surprises: the unexpected things that happen in the story.

As you can see, this approach is significantly different to the ‘transmission’ model. Barnett’s table below highlights this beautifully:

Transmission Model                           Social Constructionism Model

Definitions: The transmission model is a very popular way of thinking about communication. It suggests that communication is a tool that we use to exchange information. “Good communication” occurs when meanings are accurately conveyed and received. Definitions: The social constructionist model suggests that the way we communicate, as well as the content of what we say, shapes how we feel about ourselves, the person speaking and even others who are not in the room. The way we talk and the people to whom we talk create, sustains and/or destroys relationships, organizations, and communities.
How communication works: What gets said? What meaning is transmitted? How clear is the information?How accurately is it heard? How completely is it expressed? Was the “channel” effective? How communication works: What gets elicited by what is said or done? What contexts are created for the other? What language is elicited? What form of speech is elicited? What tones of voice are elicited? Who is invited to speak and who is not?Who is addressed and who is not?
The work communication does: What gets done? Is the uncertainty reduced? Is the question answered? Is the issue clarified? Is the problem resolved? The work communication does: What gets made? What speech acts? (insults, compliments) What relationships? (trust, respect) What episodes (collaboration, conflict) What identities? (shrill voices; reasonable persons; caring persons) What cultures/worldviews? (strong democracy; weak democracy; no democracy)


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