Storytelling in Organisations

Previous page: Stories and narrative

There is a vibrant field of literature concerning storytelling within organisations. For this case study it is important to understand how ideas of narrative and stories fit within organisational contexts, especially, as I’ll highlight, because for some the idea of organisations and stories don’t make good bedfellows. Whittle et al (2009) nicely summarise the broad picture of literature on the topic:

“Stories are important because they comprise a primary medium through which members make sense of, account for, enact and affect the organisations they work for.” (2009:426)

There are striking similarities here to Bruner’s (2004) idea that stories, for the individual at least, are about making meaning out of experience but are reflexive and have an impact on identities that then has an impact on behaviour.

What seems to drive many of the authors on the topic is a dissatisfaction with how organisations have been studied and understood in the past. This issue is closely linked to the two modes of thought, paradigmatic and narrative, that Bruner (1986, 1990) put forward. Rhodes and Brown (2005) describe a research paper by Mitroff and Kilmann (1976) as working against the “dominant logic” of the time by observing how stories were used by managers in a business to describe an ideal organisation. This dominant logic refers to an idea that narrative analysis of organisations was not in tune with what was perceived to be “good” social science which favoured a rationalistic approach.

Denning traces this “disapproval” of story back much further, listing Plato and Descartes as “Enemies of Storytelling” (2005:173). In his view that their scientific rationalism has dominated Western thought, including how organisations are understood. In the same book Seely Brown (2005:67) outlines 2 components to a business; the formal side characterised by organisational structures and processes and the “social fabric” of the organisation, “where the social networks and communities of practice live” and where, he argues, the work actually gets done! It is here that the stories and narratives are created.

Denning describes how the managerial thinking driving businesses has been focussed primarily on the formal side.

“The organization has been generally seen as systematic, monovocal, hierarchical machine. If it didn’t always work like a machine, the basic object of management was to try to change it and control it so that it did act like one, and in the process eliminate unpredictability.” (2005:174)

Weick (1995) also refers to this and the risk of trying to understand an organisation “argumentatively or paradigmatically” as he puts it.

“…people are often handicapped when they try to make sense of organizational life, because their skills at using narratives for interpretation are not tapped by structures designed for argumentation.” (1995:127)

Different perspectives

To make sense of an organisation these authors would argue that one needs to examine its social, storytelling life. Although not specifically about storytelling, Weick’s book Sensemaking in Organizations (1995) forms the basis for other work that does focus on it. Sensemaking is about how the unknown is given structure to make it “sensable” and “sensible” (1995:4), in other words allowing it to be recognised and understood. Sensemaking in individuals and organisations occurs principally when there is an interruption to ongoing activity, a break in the norm which creates some threat to established understanding or ways of working, recalling peripeteia.

When Weick does talk about stories (1995:pp127-132) he sees them as “powerful standalone contents for sensemaking” (1995:129). He says that most theoretical models of organisation are based on “argumentation” and paradigmatic thinking. This makes understanding organisational life difficult as the reality of organisations is based on narration. (1995:127)

Based on this, Gabriel (2000) develops the ideas of storytelling with organisations. He sees organisations as “jungles of information” where “stories come to the rescue of meaning” (2000:18). Gabriel argues that stories within organisations can be seen as a type of “folklore”. He describes organisational folklore as cultural practices that meet three conditions. They are:

  • richly symbolic
  • they arise spontaneously, are not manufactured
  • they are retold and become part of a tradition (2000:24)

For him “stories represent attempts to humanize the impersonal spaces of bureaucratic organisations, to mark them as human territory” (2000:57). Examining the stories that are told within an organisation, as with Weick, are a better way to understand the nature of that organisation especially their symbolic and emotional sides. (2000:240) Whittle at el (2009) critique Gabriel’s focus on stories as defined artefacts. “Stories” for them are not restricted to accounts that have the coherent sequence that Gabriel describes. They “can also be constructed piecemeal through fragments spread through conversations” (2009:427).

Boje (2008) gives a much more detailed description of how storytelling works within organisations that looks at backward-looking narratives, forward looking narratives, here-and-now stories and what he terms “reflexivities” (2008:pp9-24). He makes an important distinction between “narrative” and “story” arguing that narrative is an ordering force that tries to establish a controlled meaning on a situation. “Story” on the other hand is inherently disordered and uncontrolled, it is the ongoing and dynamic sensemaking that happens in the here-and-now in an organisation. (2008:26).

For Boje these retrospective narratives can be linear and structured (for example a founding story of a company, having an “Aristotlean” beginning, middle and end) and that changes little over time. This type he considers to be comparatively rare. More common is what he terms “fragmented” narrative, again controlled within an organisation but this time distributed over a number of different entities such as “characters, meetings, texts and visual displays” (2008:12)

Boje also identifies a forward-looking, prospective type of sensemaking he calls “antenarrative”, a “bet” on how the future will be (2011:1). This might be a vision that is shared by the company of a business after a period of change.

Storytelling in the here-and-now is a much more complex form of sensemaking. To illustrate, he refers to one type of storytelling as “Tamara”, named after a postmodern play staged in a house where action takes place with groups of actors across numerous rooms sometimes simultaneously. He compares this with organisations where sensemaking of situations is occurring in many places at once with many different individuals and groups and it is impossible to be in all places at once to gain a “god-like” view of the developing story. An understanding of the story will be partial and highly dependent on which rooms and networks someone chooses to pay attention to.

The “relfexivities” of sensemaking that Boje observes relate to the interplay between different modes of sensemaking. For example he refers to “dialogisms”, or what happens when conflicting logics of sensemaking meet. This could be illustrated by the conflict that arises when a story of change put across by an organisation’s management differs from that put across by a union. Alternatively, it refers to the juxtaposition of the stories in an organisation that are espoused and the ones that are enacted; where an organisation is saying one thing and doing another.

Rhodes and Brown (2005) sum up the value of examining storytelling within organisation saying:

“…Narrative can provide a different, and valuable, form of knowledge that enables researchers to engage with the lived realities of organizational life – the ‘truth’ that people at work live through every day. This is not a knowledge that aspires to certainty and control but rather emerges from a reflection on the messy realities of organizational practice.” (2005:182)

Why do people in organisations tell stories?

These different perspectives on storytelling and sensemaking in organisations are intended to offer a way to examine their richness and complexity (Boje 1998) but they only go some way to explore what motivates individuals in organisations to tell stories.

Reissner (2002, 2010) argues that storytelling is a way of developing a sense of identity in the face of organisational change. Working environments are complex and dynamic, she says, that require “actors to reconcile competing demands and expectations, which impact on their sense of self” (2010:287). It is through telling autobiographical stories that individuals are able to do this. She identifies that these stories reflect on historical change but also, by shaping a person’s sense of self, have an impact on future behaviour. These stories are a way of comparing expectations of the impacts of change upon the self and the eventual reality. If these expectations are met then this has a positive impact on feelings of self-worth and control but if not they have a detrimental impact and the person then feels powerless, victimised and lacking in a sense of agency.

This need for a sense of agency is highlighted by Whittle, Mueller and Mangan’s work on storytelling and “character” (2009). In their paper they describe this storytelling as a form of “moral accounting” in response to what they term “technological cock-up[s]” in an organisation (2009:438). Change that goes awry is seen as a threat to a sense of social worth. As a result people create stories of the situation that present themselves in a positive light, “for instance as virtuous, honourable, courageous, committed, competent and so on” (2009:438). They also reflect on the fact that these stories are constantly developing as they interplay with competing narratives from other actors in the organisations.

These agentive stories are ones that are created almost instinctively with a particular psychological purpose but this case study reflects on an organisation that is trying to do something different. The organisation that is the focus of this study is embarking on an approach where stories are deliberately created as tools to achieve certain various ends.

Denning (2012) points to the fact that the many characteristics of storytelling (it is natural, intuitive, entertaining etc) it can be used by organisations for its persuasiveness:

“When a listener follows a story, there is the possibility of getting the listener to invent a parallel story in the listener’s own environment. The story so co-created becomes the listener’s own, and something the listener loves and is prepared to fight for. Storytelling can thus galvanize action.” (2012:168)

This advice can be found in the work of other business consultants, for example Simmons (2009) and Duarte (2010) but much of the evidence for storytelling’s effectiveness as a persuasive tool seems to be anecdotal.

However, a good example of research into the persuasiveness of stories can be found in Merchant, Ford and Sargeant (2010) who looked at how charitable organisations utilise storytelling techniques in order to motivate members of the public to donate to their causes. Their research demonstrates that storytelling is an important and effective tool for charities as “stories give consumers an opportunity to play a role…allowing the individual to “live” the archetypal myth of providing assistance” (2010:754). The stories the charities use do this by taking the consumer through a number of stages. There is an “inciting incident” such as a case statement from someone in need. There is then a “case for support” which “can be crafted to deliberately trigger negative emotions such as sadness, anger, etc.” The consumer is then offered an opportunity to take action to “reduce the tension of the unbalanced state” (2010:754). An important final step that Merchant et al outline is to provide the consumer with some form of feedback about the efficacy of their action, to demonstrate that they were able to help the original case.

Although on a different research topic there are similarities here with Reissner and Whittle et al in that one of the important elements of storytelling is to create a sense of agency and self-worth. In the example of the charities’ stories, the story is told by the charity themselves but the aim is to put the consumer at the heart of it and to make it their own story, thus inspiring action.

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