Tim London: A good story will help your staff to make sense of facts

Having a clear narrative for your organisation will make negative events less threatening.

Tim London, senior lecturer at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, explains the importance of having an organisational narrative strongly based in facts. 

During my doctoral studies, I had a guest lecturer who came to teach us about the power of storytelling for leaders; I promptly scoffed and tuned them out. Storytelling, as I conceived of it then, was about playacting and flights of fancy, hardly the stuff of concern to leadership of organisations.

I had, of course, slightly missed the point of the lecturer and have lately been thinking more and more about the importance for leaders of building a strong narrative in order to help deal with uncertainty and ambiguity both inside and outside of their organisations. I’ve been teaching about this recently, but hopefully I’ll be able to condense the importance of the issue into this article in a manner more impactful than my first exposure to it.

First of all, despite what you might see in the political sphere, for storytelling to be truly impactful, it must be strongly connected to objective facts. This means you cannot say that everything is wonderful as profits plummet, nor can you claim that that a drop in profits is because of some vast conspiracy.

What good storytelling leaders can do, however, is provide a coherent narrative to all of those different points, and help them make sense to the people trying to deal with those facts. A strong narrative allows a leader to, without denying the declining profits, make that part of a bigger story that is less threatening.

In other words, if declining profits were likely to happen as the company transitions to a new product or service, that’s a compelling story that accepts reality while limiting the doom and gloom from the individual data point.

Notice here that there is some amount of “spin” in this storytelling; this leads into the second key point in successful storytelling for leaders: have one story and stick to it. It’s far more impactful to launch your organisation or start your leadership position by clearly describing your own purpose and the purpose of your team or group or organisation.

That means you are going to tell one story consistently, with each new fact being seen through that lens. This type of narrative is consistent, understood, and provides a sense of calm in the light of new information that could otherwise be threatening.

On the other side, you often see leaders whose narrative changes from event to event, depending on what they see as most advantageous in that moment. This is, to be blunt, the work of a conman and someone who is less a leader and more a person who is interested in power. If you are constantly changing your story to essentially trick people, this is no longer effective leadership.

So, the most important step is to state your purpose from the very beginning; after that, here are some other questions that should give you a good sense of whether you’re developing a coherent narrative or just fooling people:

  1. How closely aligned is my current narrative to the one I said was important when I assumed the role?
  2. How honest am I being with others? Would I be happy with this level of honesty if I was in their shoes?
  3. Am I justifying my stories as a way of “buying time” or to avoid being caught for something?
  4. Am I consistent with my praise and/or my admonishments? In other words, if I praise someone for doing something, am I praising everyone who does that same thing?
  5. Does someone’s value depend more on whether they agree with you than on how they are contributing to the success of the organisation, according to the original narrative?

The key points to remember in creating an effective story for both your leadership and your organisation are to establish the story from the beginning, refer back to its central conceit often and in varied circumstances, make sure you use the story to make sense of facts and not as an excuse to make them up or ignore them, and to invite others to contribute to making the story richer.

To be clear, it is unlikely that the story you create around your leadership or your organisation is going to be the most interesting or dynamic story; that is not the point! The goal is to create an environment that provides consistency and coherence to stakeholders which, somewhat paradoxically, creates opportunities for people to do not only their best work, but also their most creative work.

In an environment where the rules of the game are understood by everyone, and the constant stream of new information can be more easily understood, “maintenance” tasks are completed more easily and there is inherently more time and energy to consider “what else?”

If, on the other hand, people in your organisation are spending their time confused by every new event, gossiping, and worrying about how things are going, there is a high probability that you are struggling to get even the basics right and very little chance people will have the capacity to come up with the ideas that will keep you on the cutting edge.

One last important point: make sure that you are sharing the story frequently with all of your stakeholders. It is almost meaningless if you have the story in your head but no one else really understands it. The story needs to become the story of your organisation and its stakeholders, not just a story about you. Talk about the story as it relates to who you hire and promote (and who you do not), why you have the policies you have, and what kind of culture you are trying to create. The more the narrative is shared, the more likely that people will also live it in your organisation.

If you have a strongly shared narrative, you will almost certainly find engaged, less stressed, and more committed people. If you give a leader those types of people, there is no limit to what they can accomplish together.