Let’s be proactive with organisational storytelling

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —November 21, 2007
Filed in Anecdotes

Stories are created in organisations whenever something remarkable happens, and people love to remark on how leaders react under pressure because the way anyone reacts under pressure reveals their character. With this thought in mind I have been reading an excellent book called Crucial Conversations and I was struck by the following anecdote about a leader who was put under pressure and how she reacted.

Greta, the CEO of a mid-sized corporation, is two hours into a rather tense meeting with her top leaders. For the past six months she has been on a personal campaign to reduce costs. Little has been accomplished to date, so Greta calls the meeting. Surely people will tell her why they haven’t started cutting costs. After all, she has taken great pains to foster candour.

Greta has just opened the meeting to questions when a manager haltingly rises to his feet, fidgets, stares at the floor, and then nervously asks if he can ask a very tough question. The way the fellow emphasises the word very makes it sound as if he’s about the accuse Greta of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby.

The frightened manager continues.

“Greta, you’ve been at us for six months to find ways to cut costs. I’d be lying if I said that we’ve given you much more than a lukewarm response. If you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you about one thing that’s making it tough for us to push for costs cuts.”

“Great, fire away,” Greta says as she smiles in response.

“Well, while you’ve been asking us to use both sides of our paper and forego improvements, you’re having a second office built.”

Greta freezes and turns bright red. Everyone looks to see what happens next. The manager plunges on ahead.

“The rumor is that the furniture alone costs $150,000. Is that right?”

Of course what happens next determines the type of story that gets told in the organisation.

Greta might have said, “Excuse me, but I don’t think that my new office is an appropriate topic for this forum.” In which case a story of the leader’s hypocrisy will fly around the organisation in a flash.

Here is what Greta actually said: “You know what? We need to talk about this. I’m glad you ask the question. It’ll give us a chance to discuss what’s really going on.” And this conversation led to Greta investigating the costs of the new office and committing to drawing up new plans designed to save 50% of the costs or cancel the project altogether. Now her team knew she was serious about cost cutting and by encouraging dialogue created an opportunity for a positive story to travel.

In organisational storytelling there can be too much emphasis on finding and retelling persuasive stories. We should also help leaders take actions that create the stories that help the organisation. We can be proactive and improve an organisation’s storyability.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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