Trigger new stories and changing behaviours

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 5, 2010
Filed in Anecdotes

Our mind is full of beliefs, assumptions and values which affect what we do and how we do it. Much of what we assume comes from our experiences, especially if we’ve told ourselves and others the story of what happen and what it means for us. Our stories help us remember and embed our assumptions.1 If we want to change our actions we need new stories that create and embed a new belief, assumption or value. We need to see it and feel it before we will change.2

One can take a systematic approach to triggering these new stories by first uncovering the assumptions you or your group live by and then designing simple experiments to test these assumptions. Kegan and Lahey do a terrific job describing a process for uncovering assumptions in Immunity to Change.3 They don’t mention stories in their approach but as I was reading their practical chapters at the end of the book it was screaming out to me that what they were advocating was a systematic way to trigger stories that could replace the unhelpful ones. The aim is to create new stories for yourself that help you to act in a new way.

Our assumptions and beliefs nearly always serve a purpose because if they didn’t they would have gone the way of the Dodo. But sometimes these same assumptions hold us back. Here is an example of a big assumption that really seemed to limit what this person thought was possible.

I remember running a workshop last year for a group of senior academics, many of them professors, on how they might improve collaboration. We were discussing two behaviours that should exist that have been shown to improve productivity: Whenever anyone has a concern, he or she speaks up and explains the concern in a complete, frank, and respectful way; and everyone holds everyone accountable for meeting expectations, for commitments, and for bad behaviour—regardless of role or position.4 As I was explaining this idea I could see a woman rolling her eyes at my comments and clearly disagreeing with what I was saying so I turned to her and said, “I can see you are uncomfortable with this idea. Would you like to share your view with the group?” Without hesitation she blurted out, “There is no way known you can just tell a professor about a concern in a completely frank and open way. I did that once and in the end I had to leave the department.”

It was clear she’d had a bad experience and was operating under the assumption that you must be guarded and careful with whatever you say to those in power otherwise you might loose your job. Now here was an assumption worth testing.

The first step is to start to think like George Costanza from the Seinfeld sitcom when he decided to do the opposite of everything he would normally do. As Jerry says in the episode, “if every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” So take the assumption “I assume if I’m frank and open with my boss, he will get angry” and design a test that does the opposite of what the assumption would advise and do the opposite. It’s important to note that your experiment should be safe. Avoid tackling assumptions where you believe an action will result in death, being fired, losing a relationship etc. Break down these more dramatic assumptions into smaller, less dramatic ones and test around the edges at first.

Then, most importantly, notice what happens. Kegan and Lahey suggest you plan for the results and think about the things that will indicate what happened and whether they tell you something new about the assumption. What did you think and feel? What did others think and feel? Which outcomes would really lead you to question the validity of your assumption?

Strong assumptions are unlikely to yield in a single test. You will need to conduct a series of experiments and reflect deeply on the results. Each experiment will create a new story for you and the ones that produce something counter to your preconceived ideas, the ones that are unanticipated will be the ones you will tell others and a change in mindset and behaviour will follow. Of course all this assumes you really want to change.


1. Schank, R.C. & Berman, T.R. 2002, ‘The Pervasive Role of Stories in Knowledge and Action’, in MC Green, JJ Strange & TC Brock (eds), Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahway, New Jersey.

2. Kotter, J.P. & Cohen, D.S. 2002, The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts.

3. Kegan, R. & Lahey, L.L. 2009, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Harvard Business Press, Boston, Massachusetts.

4. Patterson, K., Grenny, J., Maxfield, D., McMillan, R. & Switzler, A. 2008, Influencer: The Power To Change Anything, McGraw Hill, New York.

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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