Stories and storytelling help shape our identify, as we listen to others’ stories, about us, our history, our upbringing. It is how we are socialized.

Stories are a simple but also complex way of passing on details about lives, perceptions, cultural values. We grow up with fairy tales, the big bad wolf in Little Red Riding hood, Sleeping Beauty. Maybe some of the messages are not ones that some of us value, but they somehow represent the culture we live in. They can pass on stereotypes, of women for example, and how they should look etc.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The same happens in organisations. Culture is passed on through stories. For example, stories about other people who have been successful or not in the organisation. We become socialised into a different culture through stories. It is more often an unconscious process.

Equally, stories are things we create to explain our lives. They are useful therapeutically. They offer us an explanation of why things are happening, help us make sense of our world and what is happening. Equally people can recreate their lives through storytelling.

We share our stories to help others understand. This has been very helpful in my life in teaching and coaching. People can relate to a story rather than just a list of facts.

In creativity, and training and development facilitation, I have used story telling in working with vision. I was very much influenced in my early work by the work of Marjorie Parker. In the 1980 ties a new MD was appointed to one of the Norwegian plants, Karmoy Fabrikker (KF) which was coming out of a period of crisis, and Ms Parker was invited in to work with him. As a result of early discussions, a vision was created for a future state of Karmoy. This was based around a garden metaphor that was drawn up by a local artist and was then presented to the workforce to inspire them to design their interpretation of the vision for their parts of the organisation.

This is a great example of a story being created to inspire. The vision was not just a set of figures, but a story of how things would look once the vision was realised.

This process can be very helpful in change processes, or creative problem solving. I have worked with this for example, asking groups to describe the situation as it now in their own words. Then they recount stories of what is wrong. Then asking them to describe what it would be like if it was working perfectly. Again, a story is created to describe this. It is then possible to create a story about how what needs to change etc. Metaphor often helps here, as does the technique of building a storyboard and drawing rather than using words to describe the before, after and steps along the way.

I believe that what is mysterious is the way we can tell a story, listen to others and then leave it to the unconscious to work through. Often resolving the dilemma etc. It is difficult to say exactly how our minds, our brains work at the neurological level, however they are constantly processing, matching with what we know already, looking for mismatching etc.

Turning this unconscious thinking into actions is probably the most challenging! For example, many organizations state that they wish to change their culture and specify actions which they believe could do this. I believe the work needs to start with minds/brains, or hearts and minds as we often say. Actions result out of this. We need to believe the stories we are being told in order to take action. I am reminded  here about the current spate of storytelling around vaccinations, and how easy it is to spread false stories. This in itself is testament to the power of storytelling.

As a leader, do you know what stories are being told around your organisation and understand how this may be shaping culture. If you sense a change is necessary, help to create new stories, co-operativly with oher members of your team, staff, and other leaders.

Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached  in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently co-authored a book on creativity for leaders,  Creativity Cycling , with Dr. Tracy Stanley.