Managing story phobia

The other day, Saul Kaplan, from the Business Innovation Factory, published a great post about his struggles to find stories of corporate transformation. His beef is that large organizations are unable or unwilling to take the risk to innovate their business models. So he’s having a hard time finding corporate success stories to share.

Yesterday at Story School, we explored a new initiative that would help a smallish charity collect, celebrate and build on success stories from their front line workers. And we discovered quickly that we share the same problem – lack of available stories – but for a different reason. The employees are doing loads of great things – they’re just reluctant to share their stories. To tell anyone what they’re doing. Because they’re afraid.

They work in a unionized and regulated environment, in which risk is a bad thing. Which makes sense, as they deal with very real issues of personal health and safety. Many also have a history of working for employers in which fear was a key managerial and leadership tool. They’ve never experienced a culture of appreciation, success, celebration and positive growth. All they’re trying to do is stay under the radar and not get caught doing anything – good or bad.

So what emerges quickly is not so much that it’s a communication or story problem – it’s a cultural issue. And here’s the thing -this organization is already pretty positive and progressive. Which shows that negativity and fear can live and breed in the tiniest, darkest places.

How did this come up? We’re exploring which kinds of stories to collect through the new initiative. Should we focus only on success stories – examples of things you did well at work? Of how you create extra-ordinary value for your clients and your colleagues? Or should we also invite learning or insight stories – examples of new things you tried, which didn’t work out? And while everyone recognizes the value of sharing learning stories, the group suggested that – at least in the beginning – it’d be best to focus on the positive stories. To build success. To use this as an opportunity to build on and strengthen an already appreciative culture. Because it would likely only take one negative story, that is shared inappropriately or “used against” an employee to kill the entire initiative.

Projects like this – in which I get to help an organization that’s already doing important, meaningful work in society celebrate and empower its talent – are why I do story work. It’s also a great reminder of the power of Appreciative Inquiry – of shifting our focus away from what’s wrong to what we want more of. Think I’ll go dust off my copy of the Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry for a little weekend read.

Happy storying!