03 Jul Change Your Stories – Change Your Organization?
How Organizational Narratives Can Influence Organizational Life.
A powerful way to understand an organization is to look at the stories it tells about itself as a collective. Beliefs that an organization holds manifest in organizational narratives, told throughout and beyond the organization on a formal as well as informal level. “Our organization stands for innovation,” is a common example; “This will never work here, we are too conservative for that” is another. Narratives form and consolidate around past and current successes or failures, which define what the organization is all about and how it is seen by outsiders and insiders. The more consistent the stories are, the more they influence the dynamics of organizational life.
Narratives of Organizational Self
The organizational stories of “self” shape the organizational climate as much as they influence directives, decision-making processes and overall strategies. Organizational narratives are different from employer or employee branding. Branding is a deliberate effort, whereas narratives are born in the moment and reflect the collective fears, hopes and aspirations of an organization. As such, these narratives go viral seemingly effortlessly: from the CEO to the entire staff and back, across suppliers and customers to the outside world, shaping the opinion the public holds about the organization. Studies show that when organizational self-stories match the practical reality a company faces, these narratives can help foster motivation and grounded decision making; if they start diverging from the practical reality, however, they can result in inertia or nostalgia.
Narratives that make up an organization can take many shapes and forms. A good starting point for organizational analysis is to look at self-narratives that deal with the past. These narratives generally fall into one of three primary categories: narratives that aim to preserve the past, narratives that defy the past or the present and narratives that create a certain curiosity to move forward towards discovering the unknown.
Preservative narratives bring the past into the present as a frozen relict: remembering styles of past leaders, the way things were, glorifying the perceived organizational values. If the stories in our organizations aim predominantly to preserve what the organization may or may not have been or done in the past, the organization may begin to feel like a large museum filled with historic statues and artifacts. “Nice to look at,” one might say, but how much do those statues still have to do with our current reality? While past relicts can be beautiful and important to look at, we always have to ask ourselves whether their magnified existence enables the members of the organization to make history themselves.
Defying organizational narratives
A defying organizational narrative does not aim to keep the past or the present alive but strives to overcome it. Suddenly, everything the organization stands for is considered outdated and has to be renewed. “Five years ago, we missed the boat of this trend that is now bigger than life. Now it is practically too late.” This type of collective self-talk in an organization could be compared to a collective attempt to destroy the statues in that previously mentioned museum, while possibly destroying many other things along the way.
Goethe said, “I despise everything which merely instructs me without increasing or immediately enlivening my activity.” Both preservative and defying organizational narratives can feel merely instructive at times. Both come with a clear mission to either preserve and glorify the past or to change or eliminate everything from the past. Both types of narratives have a tendency to stifle attempts by members of an organization to create innovative strategies.
Enlivening organizational narratives
Enlivening narratives are of a different nature. Regardless of their content, they energize the organization and its people to “increase and enliven action.” “If not now, when? If not us, who?” might be a famous example of a narrative that inspires and motivates people to rise to the occasion and leverage all their resources to create a common future. Interestingly enough, enlivening narratives are often born during difficult times, as challenges can be an important motivator to spark healthy action, given the right encouragement.
In general, an organization lives and thrives on a healthy balance of all three types of narratives, often with varying foci on one type matching the requirements of a specific department over the predominance of another type. Once a consistent narrative has formed to predominantly inform the organization as a whole, it is often difficult to influence. Starting to notice which kinds of narratives shape the mind-set of the organization as a whole may provide a healthy reality check of a different kind.
Key questions could be:
- Do the narratives we tell ourselves in our organizations still match the organizational reality? Are we still doing as well as we tell each other? Are we really doing as badly as those around us hear in our lamenting narratives?
- Do the narratives in our organization stimulate a desire to act and actively shape the present and the future of our organization?
- Are we able to switch narratives or are we stuck in just one? Can we think in one paradigm when needed, as opposed to another?
- Do our narratives help us understand the pros and cons of the current situation well enough to pro-actively move into a more productive future?
Author – Erika Jacobi – Organizational Psychology and Change.