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The 5 ways storytelling has been discouraged in organisations

Posted by  Andrew Rixon —September 27, 2006
Filed in Business storytelling, Culture

Following on from our last research findings post suggesting the 7 story forms valued within organisations we have also explored the flip side question of “when has storytelling been discouraged or frowned upon in organisations?”. The broad themes which have emerged from our research are:

  • When stories are gossip
  • When there is a break down in trust and relationships
  • Where there is no time
  • When there are “bad news” stories
  • When it sounds like corporate spin

Out of 162 responses, it is interesting to note that only 22 respondents specifically focussed on or shared their experiences with storytelling being discouraged or frowned upon in their organisation. The overwhelming majority of respondents shared their experience of how storytelling is valued within their organisation. Interestingly, when storytelling is considered to be gossip was one of the most common reasons for storytelling to be discouraged in organisations. As one participant said “it is usually discouraged as a form of gossip because it generally relates to company stuff ups”.

Below I have shared some of our participants responses around gossip, no time for stories, break down in relationships and “bad news” stories. Thanks again to all our survey participants.

Gossip and morality tales
I work in an organisation that is not very aware or conscious about its business. Storytelling and narrative techniques are not ‘officially’ sanctioned by management. However, there are a multitude of stories that circulate throughout the organisation, travelling via tea rooms, corridors, etc. The majority of these stories are like morality tales that warn of the punishment that is measured out by senior mgt for making mistakes, etc. I wonder what level of change could be made if the Executive team could harness the culture of storytelling and use it to create a more positive working environment.

Gossip and rumourings – prefers hard facts and provable data
The organization as it stands now prefers hard facts and provable data. The little storytelling that happens happens outside of the office. Most of this is dis-empowering, rumor and lowers morale. This is of course increasing the discouragement of storytelling from executive management.

There is no time
I work in Conflict Resolution, where the effectiveness of our work as practitioners depends on enabling people to hear each other’s stories. However I work within a team whose leader does not have time for stories at least within her own team. It has been extremely frustrating to attend meetings where the use of anecdotes or stories would have enlivened and broadened our knowledge and understanding of the situation, yet the opportunity is denied because of time constraints whenever I raise the possibility. Ironically, this same leader is great at telling stories in a training situation and often uses anecdotes of her own experiences to illustrate training themes.

Dealing with the board – There is no time for stories?
Story telling has always been discouraged as a method when dealing with the board and senior team, instead they insist on very formal and brief reports to tell the stories…and then wonder why they don’t have a true grasp of the culture of the organisation.

A “bad news” story which spread
The story of how a large project went disasterously wrong, cost millions more than it was meant to and went months overdue was very wide spread and talked about. The aim of the story seemed primarily aimed at showing how that part of the business was not very capable – as everyone already knew – and that as a consequence the other bits of the business were more capable and felt good about themselves.

A breakdown in relationships
Narrative has been discouraged when these elements are missing – when relationships and trust has broken down, when people are stressed, and emotionally frayed, and there is a tendency to cope by ignoring or downplaying the reality of other’s experience. This is of course especially true when the stories being told are difficult to hear, or have some element of accusation at the listener.

When has storytelling been discouraged or frowned upon in your organisation? Have you ever heard of  “good” gossip?

About  Andrew Rixon

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