If any virtue taken to excess can become a vice, storytelling is no exception. As I have written here on several occasions, my years of coaching have taught me that storytelling is an underutilized form of communication that leaders can learn to exploit to their advantage. The more I work with businesses and the people who run them, the more I am convinced that story is the single best way to connect with other human beings. However, storytelling is not a panacea, and it does have its pitfalls; like any concept or tool, storytelling can be misused.
In the previous entry, I took issue with those who condemn storytelling as propaganda or manipulation. I would suggest this distinction: Storytelling is not manipulation. Abuse of storytelling, storytelling without authenticity, failure to embody one’s stories…these things can lead to manipulation. We should not denounce or criticize the tool. Instead, we should condemn misuse of the tool.
Since it seems increasingly difficult these days to find authenticity in the world of politics, most of the modern examples I use in seminars come from the world of business. I would rather talk about storytelling in organizations, because leaders in the corporate world must be more directly accountable to their “constituents”.
In organisations, attempts to control and manipulate rarely succeed. When stories become manipulative, workers will tend to supplant the official versions of the “script writers”, replacing them with cynical counter-stories of their own. When companies attempt to craft their own “officially sponsored” myths and stories of identity that do not reflect the everyday reality of the workplace, employees will often actively resist them by developing sub-cultures with counter-stories that challenge or ridicule the organisation’s sponsored shibboleths.
In companies with strong cultures and traditions, corporate stories abound. If stories about a leader are less than authentic, employees inevitably come to know the truth. When a leader and his team try to tell stories of identity that they are not truly living, workers will create their own versions, based not on what the leader says, but on the behavior they watch every day.
For example, IBM corporate lore relates a story from early in Tom Watson Jr’s tenure as CEO. When Watson, grandson of the founder, took over the reins of the company in 1952, he and his staff told employees that they were seeking fresh ideas, and as such they would welcome the attitude of “wild ducks”. Though this new concept was presented quite effectively, in stories with vivid images, surveys of employees would later reveal that most workers came to dismiss these tales as corporate propaganda. In reality, the corporate culture emphasized conformity to such an extent that any “wild duck” behaviour found scant acceptance, and Watson’s novel policy proved to be more rhetoric than reality.
An interesting aspect of corporate storytelling is that the authenticity of a story is more essential than its historical accuracy. Take for example the case of Hewlett-Packard, where emblematic stories of the two founders have become enduring legends. One of the classic “Bill and Dave” stories involves an incident where Bill Hewlett found the door to the supply room locked on a Saturday morning. According to lore, he snapped the lock open with a bolt cutter, and left a note reading, “Don’t ever lock this door again.” This story helped teach generations of employees that their founders sought to build a company where openness and trust are valued as much as order.
Ten years ago, when I was researching corporate legends and their origins, I found considerable evidence that would lead one to conclude that the incident described above may never have taken place. In addition, I uncovered other versions of this legendary anecdote where Packard, not Hewlett, was the central character. In this particular case, though, the detail of the tale does not matter much. Since the event and the founder’s reaction ring true to the character and philosophy of both Packard and Hewlett, telling the story with either of them as protagonist would be seen as authentic. Thus, employees did not question the “facts”, and took the account to be genuine.