Ali Girard

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The Business of Storytelling: The Negotiation

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how project teams can use storytelling as a tool to successfully aid change. Now I want to expand that idea a little bit by considering the agency that audiences have to create and negotiate meaning – to craft their own stories.

While I think that “corporate culture” is a bit of a dead phrase, I also think that conceiving of an organization as a cultural environment allows us to think differently about how ideas are communicated within. While the academic community has hardly come to a strict consensus on the definition of culture, I believe that the concept is founded on the ability for humans make meaning together through communication. Meaning-making goes beyond “knowing” something; it encompasses the nuances, value, and implications of that knowledge. It is also a negotiated process, where each person applies their own thoughts and experiences in order to attribute meaning. It cannot be dictated from above.

Storytelling is one the tools we use to make meaning, and stories can come from multiple places within (and peripheral to) the cultural ecosystem of an organization:

  • We tell ourselves stories about ourselves and about others (“If they changed our team structure I’d probably end up spending more time on administrative work and less time with my customers. My stats would drop.”);
  • We hear stories from our peers (“When Eric’s company implemented a new system, he said the results were a gong show and at the end they would have been better off sticking with what they had.”); and
  • We hear stories from those who lead us (“Our team has always been great at facing challenges. We’ll meet this head-on, like we’ve done in the past, and figure it out together.”).

The point of all this is to say that the story you craft does not exist in a vacuum. You have to consider how that story interacts with stories that already exist and the new stories that will be created. People will utilize both to make sense of the unfamiliar story that you’re telling them. Considering this, I would argue that effective change management is the effective negotiation of all the stories surrounding a change.

How do I do that?

Strategically engage in a dialogue with your stakeholders in order to guide the meaning-making process in the direction you would like it to go. Go out and engage with your stakeholders before crafting your story, keeping these three goals in mind:

Understand: Know the stories that exist in the environment in which the change is taking place. What are people saying that’s directly (or indirectly) related to what will change? Make an effort to understand how those stories are generated. Are certain employees great brand advocates? Is there a history of distrust amongst employees?

Align: Knowing the stories will help you to identify areas of alignment. Which stories have you heard that will make a good case for your change? How can you showcase these stories in a way that increases desire or enthusiasm for the change?

Anticipate: Knowing the stories will also allow you to identify areas where you might meet resistance. Perhaps the hero in your story is seen as the villain in someone else’s. Can you work with these individuals or groups to re-frame their stories? What areas do you need to pay more attention to because of them? Are there particular areas that you need to be more sensitive to?

Revisit these steps as you move through the process of change. Continue to dialogue and assess the stories being told and the meanings being made. If you coordinate your listening and telling carefully, then you can ensure that your story is the dominant narrative, and have plenty of supporting stories to choose from when you need them.

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