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Making the Most of Story Work

Making the Most of Story Work

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Published by Shawn Callahan
This paper makes the argument that most people are only using a third of the power of story work because the are only thinking about storytelling. Here we introduce story-listening and story-triggering.
This paper makes the argument that most people are only using a third of the power of story work because the are only thinking about storytelling. Here we introduce story-listening and story-triggering.

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Published by: Shawn Callahan on Jan 16, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Page 1 of 5
| © 2011 Anecdote Pty Ltd
In using story-work to build a brand, engageemployees, or for one of its many otherpurposes, organisations nearly always focuson storytelling. The meme is strong becausethe act of storytelling is so powerful. Butto focus solely on this one aspect of story-work severely limits the benets.
The mostvaluable application of this technique combinesstorytelling with story-listening and story-triggering. Together, these processes create theconditions for enduring and healthy change.
Back in 2005, I introduced the readers of theAnecdote blog to the concept of
 (it might even have been the rst time the termwas used).
Story-listening is the processof eliciting and collecting stories, helpinggroups to draw meaning from those stories,and then, most importantly from a businessperspective, creating opportunities for thestories to inspire employees to take positive,transformational action.
Story-listening may sound passive, but it does notinvolve people merely sitting back and listeningto their company’s stories in the same way thatthey might enjoy their favourite podcasts. It isall about helping those who can most inuencechange understand what’s really happening intheir organisation, and then inspiring them to dosomething about it. All good business story-workis purposeful.Let me give you an example. Earlier this year,one of Australia’s biggest accounting rmscontacted Anecdote for help. They’d just donetheir employee engagement survey, and whilemany parts of the business were in good shape,there were several areas that revealed a needfor improvement. The problem, however, wasthat the survey results didn’t make it clear whatmight be creating the lower engagement scores.Broad themes like reward and recognition,communication and leadership behaviour hadbeen agged, but the organisation remaineduncertain as to exactly which behaviours neededchanging – or, for that matter, which behaviourswere working nicely.We started the project by collecting stories froma good cross-section of the rm and managingthem in our
story bank. We thenassembled a group of inuential employeesfrom across the business, and ran a workshopto help them work out for themselves thepatterns of behaviour they wanted to reinforceand the conduct they wanted to correct – thestories we’d collected gave the employeesmany concrete examples of specic behavioursthat either helped or hindered employeeengagement. Once the important patternswere identied, we helped the group to designtargeted interventions that would promptconstructive, lasting change.
Making the mostof story-work 
by Shawn Callahan
© Anecdote Pty Ltd
www.anecdote.comPage 2 of 5
| © 2011 Anecdote Pty Ltd
All the stories you hear at work reect yourorganisation’s culture. You cannot change thisculture without changing the stories beingtold and retold in your workplace. Then, onceyou’ve initiated new behaviours, new stories willow. Story-listening helps you become awareof the current corporate narratives – it helpsyou to clearly hear the dominant stories, theprevalent archetypes, the repeating plot lines.Most importantly, because you are working withstories, your feelings are engaged, and thesefeelings inspire you to take action.
Story-listening gives you the essentialingredients for change: decision-makers whoboth understand what’s going on
whoare emotionally moved to make a difference.
We all act in accordance with our beliefs,attitudes and values, which together formour view of life – or in terms of organisationalculture, our view of work. This view is shapedand reshaped by what happens to us and howwe interpret those experiences, and we reinforcethose interpretations by telling ourselves storiesand acting in accordance with them.One of the rst projects we did at Anecdotewas to investigate the issue of trust in a bank’scall centre. The call centre manager told us thatwhen she’d rst joined the section, she’d heldthe strong belief that all she had to do to getsomething done was to simply ask someone todo it and get their verbal agreement. But withinher rst week on the job, a colleague pulledher aside and advised her that, to get anythingdone, she should really email the person shewas tasking and document her request, cc-ingall the relevant managers to ensure there wasan obvious paper trail. At rst this seemed crazyto the manager, and it offended her belief inthe personal, friendly and trusting managementstyle she had cultivated over many years, soshe refused to adopt this approach. However,within another three weeks, after a series ofincidents, the manager was emailing all of hertasking requests.The dominant story at this call centre was thatif you just relied on face-to-face requests, yourwords would be twisted or ignored and the jobwouldn’t get done, so you needed to maintaina paper trail as evidence. The centre’s managerlived this negative story, multiple times, andeventually adopted it in place of her optimisticpersonal conviction. This was a sign of a veryunhealthy workplace. What needed to happenhere was that the employees needed to besubjected to new experiences that generated afresh, positive governing story, and this is exactlythe objective of story-triggering.
The simplest way to trigger such storiesis for an organisation’s leaders – that is,leaders in the broadest sense of the word– to do remarkable things, things that otherpeople will remark on.
We saw this happen atanother bank we worked with. The bank’s newCEO had noticed that most of the meeting roomsin the company’s headquarters were occupied allthe time, but that a handful were usually empty.On closer inspection, he noticed that the emptyrooms each had a sign on the door which read,
“This room can only be booked by a General Manager.” 
The CEO asked around to see if thiswas necessary and quickly decided it wasn’t. Hethen personally went to each GM meeting roomand tore down the notices, triggering a story thatew around the organisation.This might seem like a small act and a trivial story.But, in fact, it fed into a much bigger narrativethat the CEO was creating, which went alongthe lines of:
“We are attening our organisationand resources will be allocated to whoever needsthem to deliver business outcomes, regardless of their level in the company.” 
www.anecdote.comPage 3 of 5
| © 2011 Anecdote Pty Ltd
The rst step in successful story-triggeringis for leaders to be mindful of their actions.
Such purposefulness is easier said than done.Often a leader’s intent doesn’t match the livedexperiences and perceptions of her colleagues.She might want to foster collaboration yet is seenas acting in ways that create competition. Shewill only be able to tell if she is on the right trackby becoming aware of the stories that are beingtold about her; some story-listening might berequired here.
The next step is for leaders to identify orengineer opportunities to do somethingremarkable, and to do it conspicuously.
 This might be as simple as a leader telling anauthentic story that reveals something aboutthem – in particular, something about how theyreally feel, rather than what they think. If thissounds wishy-washy, it isn’t.In his book
The Political Brain
, neuroscientist andpolitical pundit Drew Westen puts it this way,using the context of political campaigns:
“ Campaigns aren’t won with bags full of anything [e.g. policy promises]. They are wonby candidates who can convince voters, throughtheir words, intonation, body language, and actions, that they share their values, that they understand people like them, and that they inspire the nation or save it from danger.” 
One CEO we worked with punctuated eachsentence of a sustainability policy he waspresenting by smacking the projection screenwith the back of his hand. By the end of thepresentation, no-one was left in any doubt as tothe fact that sustainability was important to him.The psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa LaskowLahey point out in their book
Immunity to Change
that we can also apply the idea of story-triggeringat the individual level, helping people to createnew stories for themselves which full theprerequisites for behaviour change.The usefulness of this approach became clearto me while I was conducting a workshop with80 professors at an Australian university onways to improve collaboration. As I began tomake the point that two important behavioursfor good collaboration were to make and keeppromises and to speak your mind to colleagueswith respect and good intent, I noticed a womansitting at the back of the room. She had herarms rmly crossed and was shaking her head,clearly very unhappy with what I was saying. SoI stopped my presentation and asked the womanif she would like to share what she was thinkingwith the rest of the group. Practically before Ihad nished my request, she said,
“There is noway in the world you can be open and honest with a senior professor around here.” 
Before Icould comment, she went on to tell a mini story:
“I once did what you are suggesting and I had tomove departments.” 
Now, no amount of clever argument or telling offamiliar stories would have changed that person’smind. She had obviously had an incredibly badexperience. The only way to help her gain a newinsight would be to create an experience with adifferent result to what she was expecting, andto do this many times over. She would then havea new story that would in turn guide her futurebehaviour.
There are many ways to apply storytelling toyour work setting. You can help your leadersto become better storytellers, and youcan also begin to share stories of customerservice or safety, or stories that convey yourvalues, brand, service or product.
But thereis one particular type of storytelling that I’d liketo focus on here, that which will help you bringyour strategy to life.As I’ve said in my paper,

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