December 4, 2020

The Connective Power of Stories at Work

To say that the business world has caught the storytelling bug is an understatement. Whether it’s the value of stories and storytelling in your business strategy or using stories to persuade your customers, the business media wants you to activate your inner bard.

But narrative’s power to connect runs far deeper than the way you tell your brand story.

The writer Salman Rushdie once wrote, “Man is the storytelling animal. . . his stories are his identity, his meaning and his lifeblood.”  Stories are about who we are and where we come from. But they also fuel the connections between us: sharing the traditions that link us to something larger than ourselves.  

In short, stories define and shape our culture.

It’s more than storytelling—it’s story sharing.

At Reflection Point, we use stories to encourage the connections that sustain healthy organizational cultures—an openness to the experiences of others, the safety to speak up and a strong sense of community and inclusion.

Short narratives encourage participants to share their personal stories and co-create a collective narrative that builds upon their shared experiences. Whether they see themselves in a character or they find poignancy in sentiment or a literary relationship, the text launches a joint exploration of three narratives at once: the written story, the personal response and the collective understanding we co-create at the intersection of our interpersonal reactions.

This matters. Because all too often we see the world through the lens of our own story, our own experience. We mistake our understanding for something more universal. We forget that others hold very diverse realities and that we all grow from exposure to a broader vantage point.  

Reaching outside ourselves for new ideas and perspectives

A constantly-traveling global sales team read an excerpt of Helen McDonald’s lovely memoir H is for Hawk. McDonald’s story details her attempt to raise a wild bird in the wake of her grief over her father’s death. Her focus on slowing down, on appreciating the captivating beauty of wild goshawks and the natural world they inhabit, caused the team to explore how they personally balance work and personal reflection, especially during long hours of travel.

The story gave them permission to share this idea in ways they had never articulated. They discussed their personal use of time on long-haul flights and whether they needed to work or relax, mindful that the team’s leader always worked while flying. They agreed on the importance of “sitting in the window seat,” of taking time to think, refresh and recenter. The window seat became a shared metaphor within the team to “look at the world” or “take your time.”  In short to reflect on the bigger picture.

The story is a window into the real world.

How does a short story elicit such an affirming and sustaining response? I suspect that the answer lies in the indirect nature of its path. As John Kay writes in his book, Obliquity, sometimes our most challenging issues are best solved when we approach them indirectly.

Stories are an ancient technology of obliquity - they invite us to see a familiar problem in a new way. McDonald’s story set the stage for the group to explore a challenge they had all experienced but never discussed: the delicate balance of personal and work time.

In sharing their insights, they found among their colleagues a divergent set of perspectives. But they jointly concluded that even the hardest workers need time for reflection and rejuvenation. They not only forged a collective story within the space of a single conversation, but a common language to remind them of their shared commitment: to carve out the time to “take the window seat.”

Image Credit:
Natalia Goncharova via WikiArt
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