The cost of negative stories

I came home last night after a couple of hours away to discover that one of my dogs, (yes I know which one), had chewed up my favourite polarized sunglasses. So I did what it seems that everyone in the world does – I googled it to find out why. I already knew the answer. He’s bored – and likely frustrated with his training process. It’s my fault – as it always is. He needs more stimulation. And I need to put my shit away so that he doesn’t find it and chew on it.

What fascinates me about this is that there are millions of stories online about just this one event – my dog ate my glasses. Misery loves company, they say. It seems that we find comfort in sharing stories about what we perceive to be our dog’s bad behaviour. Sharing misery stories connects us across cultures and continents. It relieves our guilt, as we realize that we’re not the only “bad” doggie parent. And, we occasionally learn from the stories of others, about how to prevent another occurrence.

Here are many of the major benefits of story sharing at work – building relationships, making meaning, learning new things. So why are the “bad” stories a problem? Because together, they form a dominant narrative – of “typical” dog behaviour and ownership. Narrative deals at the 50,000 foot level – in concepts, themes, patterns and trends. Stories are specific instances or examples of those themes. The dominant narrative about dog ownership is that, at some point, it’s likely your dog will behave badly and eat your glasses. Across the internet, you can find thousands of examples of how this has played out.

Photo credit: @cheesymeatballpibble

But here’s the thing. We rarely share the good stories – about the 99% of the nights we come home and the dog didn’t eat our glasses – or anything else. Why? Because, on their own, we don’t see those individual stories as worth sharing – they don’t fit into the SURE categories of Unpredictable or Extraordinary. When we add them up though – go up to the 50,000 foot level of narrative – we find a pattern that is worth sharing. Most of the time, most of our dogs are really good.

When you think about how this can play out across the culture of an organization, industry, community or institution, you can see the loss of potential in only telling the negative stories. (Which is 99% of what we get in our daily news). We build dominant narratives of negativity, failure, poor performance. Which creates a vicious cycle of expectation. We project our expectations of negativity onto an event or an employee’s performance – and sure enough, it comes true. The Pygmalion Effect has been proven again and again (Rosenthal–Jacobson, 1968).

This is why I work with Appreciative Inquiry as a guiding framework – because it focuses our energy on positive stories – on what we want more of. Try it – spend a day or two telling only positive stories – about great things that people around you have done – and what wonderful things you expect in the future. You’ll be amazed at how it changes behaviour and performance.