By Jeff Schwaber
February 7, 2022
We, humans, live by stories. They’re a tremendous technology for remembering, communicating, and making sense of our lives. When we fit aspects of life into a story, they often make more sense to us and are more motivating. Storytelling is such an inherently human activity that we have a whole academic discipline—anthropology—that some have described as “theoretical storytelling” and that we use to try to understand each other. The farthest back history we have is largely indistinguishable from storytelling, and recently we’ve been discovering that many of the stories that we often discount as myths existed to remember and pass on aspects of real history, though colored with our desire to make meaning (i.e., stories) out of reality. For example, geologists learned of the history of large earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest in part through indigenous myths.
Storytelling is a key tool that leaders use, both in positive and abusive ways, to help employees connect to their work, help people coordinate together, and build the future of the company. Steve Jobs was infamous for his reality distortion field, which is another way of describing storytelling at the edge of plausibility, storytelling which often became a reality through force of personality.
Storytelling doesn’t have to equal fiction, but it’s often true that we exaggerate when we turn truth into a story, both to aggrandize ourselves and the story itself and also to make it more memorable and connect more to the meaning we make from the events of our lives. And, of course, storytelling knows no bounds of truth but can expand into the greatest fiction. Storytelling weaves through our lives in ways both great and small.
When you start recognizing the stories that are constantly happening around you, it can be tempting to see manipulation in the ways people choose to emphasize the story that they prefer. Certainly, you’ve probably seen leaders who choose stories that make themselves look good, whether in small ways or enormous ways. Many of these sorts of behaviors are normal human behaviors. We focus on the parts that make sense to us, or we aim for optimism in the hope of creating optimism around us. Others are deeply unethical, self-serving behaviors. Storytelling can be the tool that we use to manipulate and control each other. Bad leaders often seem to think that it’s their job to cover up anything that might be bad news or persuade you that it’s your fault, so you’ll burn yourself out to fix it. They can even go farther and turn any bad news into something great out of fear that people will recognize their house of cards. Can they make lemonade out of lemons? Sure, but also, they seem to try to make it out of acorns, dented hubcaps, and even hand grenades.
Storytelling is the underlying logic behind why companies do some form of vision and values exercise: a real vision and values, woven into a story of who the company is, are an incredible source of motivation for those who buy into it. Even the hint of a real vision can push an organization in a positive direction. A classic example is the much-hated-on-the-internet “Don’t Be Evil” slogan of Google. For some, every example of Google doing something sort of evil—during the era when the informal motto ruled the company—was an example of perfect hypocrisy and evidence that visions and values are bullshit. But if you imagine that a thousand people are an extremely difficult thing to corral in a single direction, and you look at what Google did during “Don’t Be Evil” and what they have done since it was taken away, the more compelling story is that the simple slogan permeated the culture and made it easier for employees to push for good behavior, and harder for those who wanted to perform evil to get away with it.
One way to look at the job of management is to simplify and communicate the incredible complexity that is a modern company, and connecting events together into stories is a tool to help employees make sense of those events. They’re going to create their own stories anyway. The question for a good manager is what story—that is true—do you want them to contribute to.
I come down on the side that it’s your responsibility as a leader not to manipulate your people, but still to carefully think about the stories and choose ones that help your people see the forest, the true forest, including the positives that are hard to identify when something terrible happens.