The Stories We Tell
Story. For me, the word conjures endless positive associations. I think of childhood bedtime stories. I think of stories told boisterously over dinner (after perhaps one too many glasses of wine) with exaggerated details and wild hand gestures and belly laughs. I think of curling up on the couch on an obligation-free Sunday, coffee in one hand, book in the other. I think of the beautiful human connections we make when we share our life story with someone, or when we share a story that makes us feel vulnerable at first, but brings us closer to the person with whom we’ve chosen to share.
In business, storytelling has become a highly coveted skill: a distinct advantage that sets strong leaders apart. Stories make us feel good. We want to hear them, and we long to tell them.
But there’s a dark side to storytelling. Ego-driven stories—where the ego is the author and doesn’t bother to consult an editor—can infect us like little verbal contagions.
Chances are, you’ve told a story like this at work. Stories that make you and your colleagues the victim. The type of story that begins with an assumption—an interpretation of the facts based on your perspective... He never liked me, she’s threatened by other confident women, the company doesn’t really care about us... And if you’re a people leader, you manage people who will inevitably tell these types of stories. Some of those stories might even be about you. So, what do you do about it?
- Don't despair.
- Learn to predict when ego-driven stories are likely to ramp up, and then get ahead of them.
When change is happening in an organization, it’s like the flu season for ego-driven stories. Re-orgs. Mergers. New leadership. New targets. Before employees can integrate changes into their “new normal,” they often struggle with uncertainty, distraction, grief, and heightened worst-case-scenario thinking—all of which become a perfect storm of unverified ego-driven stories that spread like a pandemic.
“Always on high alert, ego scans the environment for fodder to create stories of anger and outrage, assault and helplessness. It nurtures seeds of dissatisfaction until they grow into a full-on burning bush."
—Cy Wakeman, No Ego
The antidote? Confront story with reality. I recently facilitated one of Frontier’s Leading Change workshops for a client going through a merger, and I had the satisfying experience of watching a counterproductive, fear-driven story come face-to-face with reality.
A participant mentioned that the link to the company severance information had been bumped to the top of the intranet homepage. Fellow participants nodded enthusiastically. A few people chimed in “Yes! We noticed that, too.” It quickly became clear that this fact had been widely observed and similar conclusions drawn. Job elimination on a large scale suddenly felt certain and imminent. “You can’t help but wonder if it means something.”
Shortly thereafter, another participant sheepishly raised his hand. He explained that his team was responsible for moving the link to the top of the page. “We noticed that ‘severance’ had become a popular search term after the merger announcement, so we wanted that information to be easy for folks to find, that’s all.”
Just like that, story met reality. All kinds of speculations and fears were extinguished right before my eyes.
If you’re a leader trying to help your team navigate change, here are a few things to remember:
- Stories are incredibly powerful. They can inspire just as quickly as they can create ripples of doubt and fear. As a leader, it’s important to look for opportunities to point people to reality with empathy.
- In times of change, fear looks to leadership. Create safe opportunities for your direct reports to confide their concerns and assumptions to you. This may require a dedicated 1:1, rather than a team meeting.
- Be vulnerable. Share a story about a time that you navigated a difficult change, either in your career of your personal life. This can be incredibly impactful, especially if the relationship is new and you’re still working to establish trust.
No matter where you sit in an organization, people leader or not, we are all susceptible to the allure of an ego-driven story. Telling these stories can be a lot easier than getting curious and rationally examining how our assumptions and fears are shaping a narrative. But in the same way that you cover your cough and take precautions against spreading the flu, challenge yourself and others to stay grounded in reality before spreading toxic stories. The results may surprise you (and prevent a lot of mental anguish).