Storytelling to Counter Toxic Narratives

January 26, 2017

Storytellers broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately connect us. — Robert Redford

Stories do not breathe, Arthur W. Frank contends, but animate.

They work with us, for us, and as Frank insists, always work on us.

They affect what we can see as real, as possible, and worth doing or even best avoided.

Often dominant narratives work with business, for them, and on them.

They typically see what they want only to believe.

These narratives can be worthwhile.

But they also can become irrational and obsessional.

How regularly does your senior leadership and stakeholders listen authentically to each other’s stories?

Or treasure they are all together in the human journey in this, Our Global Village?

Or value they are the authors of their own lives?

Minimizing the importance of this center of gravity, or senior leadership and stakeholders’ line of sight for discovering the answers to these questions, gives authority to a narrative of cultural disempowerment.

This problem set sanctions organizational mental states, and even behavioral actions to emerge.

This problem set forces leadership and stakeholders to bear dehumanizing provocations — where these actors become unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with cultural disempowerment, even if this is “escapable” — because they are learning that they can’t control the situation.

This inaction leads senior leadership and stakeholders to overlook opportunities for authentic relief or change.

They build concentric circles of excuses that absolve them from accountability for change or improvement.

Instead of discovering authentic ways to deal with these situations and events, these actors accept the status quo and blame external conditions for the problems that exist.

As spreading infections, these terms and events, are passed from group to group, level to level.

Standard responses like “We’d love to do that, but we really can’t,” become the mantra.

These responses mentor blind spots, which break trust and eventually can brand senior leadership and stakeholders with an enduring economic decline during their watch, or bestow it on those to follow.

Money, Robert Redford argues, is a means to an end for the filmmaker. For the corporate mind, he contends, it is the end.

In IWB’s center of gravity and line of sight, we envision this as mindshare matters more often than market share.

How does corporate mindshare transform its business narratives from merely interesting to truly world-changing?

It begins with using storytelling to counter toxic narratives from senior leadership, climates, and cultures emerging from this problem set, and conditions in which stakeholders are suffering from their sense of powerlessness.

It starts with using storytelling to discover authenticity and brilliance are within all stakeholders.

This culture nurtures personal change, which is passed on to filling the collective heart for authentic organizational change and wellbeing.

Toxic Narratives from Senior Leadership and Organizational Climates and Cultures

Antisocial behavior at work, as Christine Porath and Christine Pearson discovered, is far more toxic than managers imagine.

This blind spot sanctions stakeholders as targets of bad behavior to become angry, frustrated, and even vengeful. Job satisfaction declines. Performance plummets.

Those who stay in this climate and culture, often impose a bigger toll on their organizations.

Porath and Pearson, polled several thousand managers and employees about their responses to rudeness at work, to discover the impact of incivility on performance in a diverse range of U.S. companies.

They learned from those on the receiving end:

  • 48% decreased their work effort.
  • 47% decreased their time at work.
  • 38% dropped their work quality.
  • 66% said their performance declined.
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 63% lost time avoiding the offender.
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined.

Manfred Kets de Vries is an often-referenced source on the topic of coaching toxic leaders and the subject of toxic workplaces.

I agree with his argument that senior executives have the power to create environments that allow stakeholders to grow and to contribute their best.

Or must endure toxic workplaces where everyone is unhappy.

How executives, as Kets de Vries contends, end up using this power depends in part on their mental health.

Sound and stable bosses, Kets de Vries argues, generally build companies where rules make sense to stakeholders, which frees them to focus on performing well in their jobs.

On a darker and more troubled side, he insists, when a leader’s psychological makeup is warped — business plans, ideas, interactions, and even systems and structure within their organizations, reflect these leader’s pathologies.

Turning our focus toward Gilbert, Carr-Ruffino, Ivancevich and Kovnopaske’s interest on the concepts of toxic versus cooperative behaviors at work — uncovers some of the factors that contribute to toxic workplaces.

How do leaders habitually display toxicity toward their stakeholders?

It is observed through excessive stakeholder monitoring, micromanagement, and politically-motivated performance appraisals.

End results and end states in this context are radically different from organizational climates and cultures where community or collaboration is practiced as the norm.

Gilbert, Carr-Ruffino, Ivancevich and Kovnopaske argue some of the caveats, which contribute to toxic workplaces include:

Process Consultation as a Helping Relationship

People call those imperfections, but no, that’s the good stuff. — Sean, Good Will Hunting

I agree with Edgar H. Schein in his assessment that process consultation is a philosophy and methodology for helping human-centric systems.

This line of sight directs attention away from rigorously giving advice or providing solutions to clients who are seeking help.

Alternatively, this working space is backfilled with a center of gravity and line of sight that focus on building a vested relationship, which empowers clients to solve their own problems.

Without failures, as others argue, there can be no transcendent thinking or innovation.

Framing the problem set in this manner, and using this related math therein, assumes as Schein argues — when we are trying to help human-centric systems — individual, group, or organizational ones — we will never know enough about the personality, norms, or culture of these human-centric systems to give useful rational advice.

What will work, as Schein contends, is something that the process consultant and client systems must work out collaboratively because only these human-centric systems know what they are authentically willing or able to do differently.

In my process consultation work, I appreciate success lands on authenticity — change that looks, feels, breathes, and sounds different, every single time.

Authentic behavior is our willingness to be who we are, telling the truth in caring ways, and supporting the integrity of our client and their organization’s concerns.

Like others argue, I too agree psychological mindedness (e.g., self-examination, self-reflection, introspection and insight) within human-centric organizations, is the first step forward toward authentic mental health and wellbeing.

Often organizational development professionals, their engagements, and interventions focus principally on framing problem sets and the math used therein where changes are rationally planned, designed, implemented and evaluated.

In the process consultation model and approach, clients and their organizations stage not only organizational development engagements and interventions.

These initiatives also uncover a mosaic of conscious and unconscious problem sets and apprehensions — the catalysts for building concentric circles of excuses — which senior leadership and stakeholders exploit to procrastinate on confronting toxic narratives that give authority to climatic and cultural disempowerment.

Storytelling targets these catalysts.

Similarly, to the process consultation model and approach — storytelling pursues diagnostic and intervention schemes for discovering and mitigating psychologically-based angst or dysfunction that grants authority to narratives of climatic and cultural disempowerment in organizations.

From longstanding practical experience with engagements in the management of change and executive coaching, I appreciate emotions are rich data sets and responses to trigger events.

Deferring to Schein in the context of this analysis — it is instructive to consider organizational frameworks and behavior within quasi-military language — tasks, roles, structures, outputs and mobilization of human and material resources in pursuit of defined goals.

A substitute, he contends, is the machine language of engineering.

Both worldviews and mindsets, he argues, tend to collectively exclude the emotional life of the organization or at best minimize it.

In business school, leadership, and consultant factories, including their respective curricula, it seems there is no merit or time for the authentic emotional life of organizations.

I agree with Schein that organizations do have an emotional life, which is the sum of the emotional responses of all its stakeholders.

The emotional life of an organization is intrinsic to its efficient performance and wellbeing. It’s not just a support to the organization.

The emotional life of an organization, as with an individual, often loses touch with reality and falls victim to blind spots.

Narrative Therapy in Practice

Storytelling is unique in being process oriented, as is narrative therapy, where it seeks to be a respectful, non-blaming approach and methodology for coaching, and community work in the climate and culture of an organization.

Storytelling empowers stakeholders as the “experts” in their own lives.

It views problems separately from stakeholders, and furthermore, assumes stakeholders possess many skill sets, competencies and performance choices, beliefs, values, and commitments, which will assist stakeholders to lessen or diminish the influence of problems in their lives.

Storytelling, similarly to narrative therapy, is grounded in the center of gravity and line of sight that guides us as practitioners to help senior leadership and stakeholders, recreate redescriptions, or even innovatively create, transformed descriptions of stakeholders and the organizations they live and work within.

Michael White and David Epstein first introduced narrative therapy as a unique process-oriented approach and methodology.

Storytelling like narrative therapy is based on the premise that problems are manufactured in social, cultural and political contexts.

Because of this, storytelling is efficacious for us to use as practitioners when we help senior leadership and stakeholders uncover and manage their issues and problems in a mosaic of contexts.

Storytelling analogous to narrative therapy consists of the following elements:

  • Events
  • Linked in sequence
  • Across time
  • According to plot and plot points

We soon realize throughout our lifespan that the word “story” has many different associations and constructions for many people.

Human beings, as Alice Morgan insists, are interpretive beings. We all have daily experiences of events that we seek to make meaningful.

The stories we all have about our lives, she and others contend, are created through linking events collectively in a particular sequence across a period, and then uncovering a way to explain or make sense of them.

Our lives, as Morgan argues, are multistoried. Many stories are occurring at the same time. Different stories can be told about the same events.

There also are many “different types of stories” by which we live our lives and relationships, she insists, which include stories about our past, present, and future.

Our stories can be about families, relationships, and even ones about countering toxic narratives from leadership and our coworkers’ who give authority to a story of climatic and cultural disempowerment.

Building a mosaic of relationships, which land on effective engagement and influence, takes time.

Understanding our climatic and cultural context, our cognitive orientation patterns, and our communication styles and methods, is essential to any communication strategy and approach we employ in our story, and listeners discover during our storytelling.

During my deployment in Afghanistan, I collected, analyzed, interpreted and disseminated complex sociocultural and human geography atmospherics in products to a mosaic of audiences.

I participated in many key leader engagements (KLE’s) and loya jirga’s, which were a traditional assembly of leaders who made decisions by consensus.

During these events, and the storytelling that unfolded, I gained a deep appreciation of the storyteller’s cultural and social context, line of sight, capabilities, and spheres of influence.

Storytelling, analogous to narrative therapy, empowers us when we are initially faced with seemingly overwhelming thin conclusions and problematic stories, as Morgan argues, so we can become interested in seeking out alternative stories.

Not just any alternative stories.

But stories that are identified with the stakeholder seeking guidance, or even executive coaching for how stakeholders authentically would like to live out their lives or break free from the spheres of influence on the problems they are facing, or blind spots giving authority to the storyteller’s narrative on disempowerment.

Mobilizing Storytelling to Counter Toxic Narratives from Leadership and Their Organizations

As Frank insisted earlier, stories may not breathe, but they do animate. They work with us, for us, and always work on us.

Storytelling as an approach and methodology in organizational development engagements helps create a holding environment that can become a safe one for leadership and stakeholders to transform their mindshare to appreciate where “Fs” become the new “As.”

Fail early, fail often.

Without failure, there can be no authentic innovation.

In this holding environment, storytelling can work with us, for us, and always work on us to become better innovators for game-changing creativity and transformation — rather than habitual executors of concentric circles of innovatively normalizing the abnormal and deluding ourselves into expecting innovatively different results or end states.

Storytelling helps senior leadership and stakeholders to step out of their habitual routines of thought and behavior, and then make the connections between different aspects of themselves, which do not typically surface in their workspace ecosystems and environments.

Similarly, to the Rogerian person-centered approach and methodology, storytelling values leaders and their stakeholders because they really do have the answers within themselves.

Brilliance lies within each of us.

Storytelling helps senior leadership and stakeholders come to terms with what they do, how they do it, and why they do it.

It produces powerful insights on the way these storytellers contribute to business models, climate and culture, and business process management that drives economic growth or the lack thereof in their organizations.

In IWB speak: Mindshare is often more important than market share, isn’t it?

Storytelling goes beyond traditional, conventional “rational” approaches customarily used in organizational development.

It pays close attention to the different conscious-unconscious complex forces and dynamics performing in the organization.

It goes deep to discover authentic realities, the insights in change or be changed.

Multiple worldviews, mental models, Mindscapes, and cultural differences exist amongst us all, including creative ways to bridge them.

Decisions and beliefs formed within cloistered caves with half-seen images on walls are often taken as real in shadow play.

Shadows are only the illusory forms of obscured realities — the symptoms instead of the causes.

Storytelling helps both its storyteller and recipients to realize initially stated problems are often not the real problems.

Blind spots and unconscious issues repressed by shadows complicate organizational functioning and polarize climate and culture — Trust your Neighbors but Brand your Stock.

Treating illusions as reality creates normality that is actually abnormal.

Abnormality breaks trust and brands leadership and stakeholders with enduring economic decline during their watch or bestowing it on those to follow.

All belief systems, as I maintained earlier, come with a story attached. These stories provide context. They provide meaning.

Storytelling and the methods used therein:

Myths About Leadership

Bruce Peltier contends there is a mosaic of myths about leadership, which create problems for organizations.  These myths inhibit leadership in all groups, in all levels.

The skills, including the differences in them between leadership and management, he maintains, are not taught in school.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that we have come to accept, or even expect that we are supposed to pick up this mindshare and skill sets, as we move through our careers?

Peltier reasons this is impossible to accomplish without independent study. Why?

Partly because of the myths related to the leadership function.

Alternatively, leadership skills, as he contends, can be learned by motivated learners.

In a contrarian line of sight, John Kotter frames this problem set as one where the on-the-job experiences of most of us seem to undermine the development of the attributes needed actually for leadership.

As others do, I too conclude there is little evidence that good followers make good leaders.

The prerequisite skill sets seem to be nearly independent of each other.

I have discovered much as others have guiding executives or facilitating executive coaching, an appreciation for no way leaders can possess the technical skill sets of those they lead.

These requisite skill sets quickly continue to change by the moment.

Stories are our currency for the social construction of our reality.

Our stories we hear or tell, are pivotal for how we make our sense of self socially.

Collectively, this lobbies appreciably on how we make our social institutions what they are, and how they sequentially shape us — our cultures, our societies, and yes, even toxic workplaces.

Storytelling in organizational development work, similarly to the narrative therapy approach and methodology, views stakeholders as resourceful and influential in the stories of which they are a part.

This center of gravity and line of sight aligns well with action learning, which helps senior leadership and stakeholders to develop informative views and insights on systems, including complex adaptive ones; lateral thinking; and the problem-solving power of integrative thinking.

Scope of Work and Outcomes

How does storytelling help leadership and stakeholders listen authentically to each other’s stories?

Or treasure they are all together in the human journey in this, Our Global Village?

Or value they are the authors of their own lives?

The following are some of the tactics, techniques, and procedures for doing so.

  • Guiding toxic leaders and stakeholders to step outside of their comfort zones — to discover and respond to what their eyes cannot see (blind spots) — the unfamiliarity with how this adversely affects critical business issues (CBIs) and key performance indicators (KBIs) — discovering opportunities for authentic relief or change.
  • Coaching opportunities focusing on helping leadership become toxic-free, which will improve functional performance and execution of skill sets critical to driving organizational agility and adaptability impacting all stakeholders — including the ways in which strategies, leadership styles, decision-making, and even structures are tossed to and fro by the psychological orientations of leadership on climate and culture.
  • Collecting, analyzing, interpreting and disseminating client-centered organizational performance improvement analysis within organizations as complex adaptive systems within their ecosystems and environments — mapping communication flows; strengths and weaknesses; intervention readiness for authentic growth at the group or division, team, or individual level.
  • Approach and methodology for discovering, classifying and coaching on forms of dysfunction — especially in the context of individual managers; superior-subordinate relationships; experiences within and across groups; the adaptive style of the entire organization on climate and culture affecting all stakeholders.
  • Approach and methodology for helping leadership and stakeholders work through old behavioral dynamics — such as decision-making; leadership; strategy formation; structuring; and organizational change — which are tossed to and fro by typically invisible and long-standing psychological forces that leadership and stakeholders often are unaware — producing outcomes that present as irrational and dysfunctional.
  • Approach and framework for understanding human performance improvement in a multiplicity of contexts throughout the climate and culture of the organization — shared in ongoing organization development initiatives — network what stakeholders do with coaching on what their authentic passion and purpose is, and closing the gaps therein — and improving on organizational-wide productivity, profitability and stakeholder vested relationships.

Talk the Walk, Walk the Talk

Now that you have broken through the wall with your head, what will you do in the neighboring cell? —S. J. LEC, New Unkempt Thoughts

The map, as Peltier insists, is not an absolute one.

Neither are stories or the act of storytelling.

We know it’s impossible, as Peltier argues, to translate the surface of a sphere onto a plane without some form of distortion.

Knowing this, where do we go from here?

The explanation, as Peltier insists, is not one that is based on habitual reality.

I agree on this score with Peltier. We live in two worlds: the real concrete one, and the world of our perceptions, our attributions, and as Peltier contends, our construal.

A common ground we all may agree on is simply — the more flexible person gets their way.

Inflexibility, as Peltier contends, usually constrains us. Not only a lack of information, or a lack of skill, or a bad habit.

I remain amazed at how creative and crafty people are with normalizing the abnormal.

Like Peltier, I too see time and again people who do self-defeating things out of a false sense of honor or pride in consistency.

But there’s always hope, isn’t there?

It’s realized when we become flexibly persistent in our search for encouragement and support for more choice than less.

What’s your story, I ask you?

How are you going to tell it?

The world of all appearances, then, is the fabric woven on the loom of perceptions.
Lawrence E. Sullivan
Director, Center for the Study of World Religions
Harvard University


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