Storytelling in Organizations

(adapted from Yiannis Gabriel (2008) Organizing Words: A Critical Thesaurus for Social and Organization Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Storytelling has long been a feature of human societies, groups and organizations. Stories are pithy narratives with plots, characters and twists that can be full of meaning. While some stories may be pure fiction, others are inspired by actual events. Their relation to events, however, is tenuous – in stories, accuracy is often sacrificed for effect. Stories pass moral judgements on events, casting their protagonists in roles like hero, villain, fool and victim. They are capable of stimulating strong emotions of sympathy, anger, fear, anxiety and so forth.

Stories along with myths and other narratives have long been studied by ethnographers as vital ingredients of culture. In preliterate cultures, stories represented the collective memory of communities, the legacy that passed from one generation to the next; they entertained, explained, informed, advised, warned and educated. The rise of modernity seemed to sound the death-knell of stories and storytelling for many theorists. The emergence of different forms of entertainment, of electric light, and different media of communication seemed to consign storytelling to the margins of society, the preserve of folklore. The simultaneous emphasis on rationality, factual accuracy and verifiability, the rise of science and evidence-based knowledge, it was thought, would strike a further blow to stories as reservoirs of meaning and knowledge. Writing in the inter-war years, the great German scholar Walter Benjamin could view the storyteller as “something remote from us and something that is getting ever more distant” (Benjamin, 1968, p. 83).

If modernity was composing requiems for stories and storytelling, postmodernism has rediscovered stories and storytelling in virtually every text, sign and object. Journalists, politicians, scientists, consultants, managers, advertisers, impresarios, are all after ‘stories’. Advertisements, material objects (including all commodities, branded and unbranded), images of all sorts, human bodies (especially as pierced, tattooed and surgically modified), consultants’ reports and performance appraisals, official documents and works of art, legal arguments and scientific ‘theories’ are viewed as stories. Of course, these stories are not like the stories told by the fireplace over long winter evenings, but they carry emotion, they carry meaning and are richly symbolic. As Kearney has argued “old stories are giving way to new ones, more multi-plotted, multi-vocal and multi-media. And these new stories are often, as we know, truncated or parodied to the point of being called micro-narratives or post-narratives.” (2002, p. 126)

Industrial psychologists and sociologists were relatively slow in becoming interested in the stories told in and about organizations. Occasionally using stories as vignettes to support arguments, they shunned them as research material, in favour of other, more reliable forms of ‘data’, like questionnaires, interviews and experiments. In a very early and visionary contribution, Mitroff and Kilmann (1975) drew attention to the importance of stories that managers tell which capture the unique qualities of an organization and serve as repositories of meaning. Even if not true, stories can reveal people’s deeper feelings about their organizations, their ambitions, disappointments and grievances. Early contributions noted that stories in organizations (like their counter-parts in folklore) revolve around a relatively small range of themes (Martin, Feldman, Hatch, & Sitkin, 1983), that they often act as cognitive maps assisting organizational sensemaking (Wilkins, 1984) and that they can act as instruments of control encouraging compliance to an organization’s norms and values (Wilkins, 1983).

Research on organizational storytelling accelerated considerably since the 1990s when stories started to make regular appearances as ‘data’ for organizational analysis, seeming to open windows into the cultural, political and emotional lives of organizations. There are numerous uses to which storytelling has been put by theorists of organizations, including:

  1. stories as a part of an organization’s sensemaking apparatus;
  2. stories as crucial aspects of individual cognitive functioning and sensemaking;
  3. stories as features of organizational politics, attempts at control and resistance;
  4. stories as symbolic artefacts expressing deep mythological archetypes;
  5. stories as rhetorical performances aimed at influencing hearts and minds;
  6. stories as means of sharing, disseminating and contesting knowledge and learning;
  7. stories as vital ways of constructing individual and group identities.

Extensive contributions to the study of stories in organizations have been made by Boje, Czarniawska, Gabriel, Sims, Brown and many (for overviews, see Rhodes (2005) and Gabriel (2004)). Boje (1991; 1994; Boje, 1995) has offered powerful accounts of organizations as storytelling systems, noting that stories in organizations tend to be multi-authored, terse, fluid, polysemic (they contain multiple meanings) and are frequently unfinished. His is a postmodern approach; in postmodern times stories become fragmented, disrupted and even incoherent. For Boje, a story does not exist outside the moment that it is told; there is no fixed text, or plot, or characters; a story is “an oral or written performance involving two or more people interpreting past or anticipated experience” (Boje, 1991, p. 111).

More recently, Boje has become concerned about attempts by large corporations to silence stories that they disapprove of and has proposed the concept of ‘antenarrative’ – a “fragmented, non-linear, incoherent, collective, unplotted, and pre-narrative speculation, a bet, … a wager that a proper narrative can be constituted” (Boje, 2001, p. 1, emphasis added). Czarniawska and Gabriel, on the other hand, have tended to look at stories, even organizational stories, as having plots, characters and relatively stable meanings. In several of her works, Czarniawska (1997; 1999; 2004) has argued that even some most unstory-like texts, such as scientific theories and consultants reports, can be seen as having underlying plot structures.

In my own work, I have offered perhaps the most conservative (in the sense that it may be equally applied to folkloric and work-place narratives) definition of stories as “narratives with plots and characters, generating emotion in narrator and audience, through a poetic elaboration of symbolic material. This material may be a product of fantasy or experience, including an experience of earlier narratives. Story plots entail conflicts, predicaments, trials and crises which call for choices, decisions, actions and interactions, whose actual outcomes are often at odds with the characters’ intentions and purposes” (Gabriel, 2000, p. 239). Using this approach, I have has sought to study a wide range of organizational phenomena, including leader-follower relations, group relations, insults and apologies, illness and suffering and the user-technology interface (e.g. 1991; 1993; 1997).

Sims, Brown and several others have studied stories in connection with the formation of individual and organizational identities. Sims has examined how individual identities are constructed, undermined and contested as “we create stories about ourselves and our situation, and then proceed to live out some of them. Some of the stories we create, however, are contested, denied or simply ignored by others. We are on the verge of living out a story which features a major victory, a pinnacle to our achievements, or a rescue of some deserving cause, when someone else shows total disdain for our narrative of our lives by walking roughshod over the story we are creating” (2003, p. 1196). Brown and his colleagues (e.g. Brown, 2006; Brown & Humphreys, 2006; Brown, Humphreys, & Gurney, 2005) have carried out extensive researches on the inter-penetration of individual and collective identities. They look at identities as complex and precarious narrative accomplishments and instead of simplifying this complexity argue for a fluid and multiple conception of identity.

In recent years, numerous organizational consultants have turned to stories as vehicles for enhancing organizational communication, performance and learning, as well as the management of change. While the success of these approaches is qualified, there can be little doubt that, in the hands of imaginative leaders, educators, gurus and prophets, stories are powerful devices for managing meaning. Among many authors who have offered practical advice to managers and leaders on how to best use stories to enhance their effectiveness, Armstrong’ (1992) and Denning’s (2000; 2005) work has been rightly influential. A few authors, like Snowden (2001; 2002) have brought together the academic and practitioner perspectives by using sophisticated story-based research to enhance management systems and especially the machine-human interface.

The study of stories in organizational settings is still in its early stages. There is a possibility that interest in using stories as management tools may prove little more that a management fad and fashion, but the use of stories as research material is likely to accelerate as the recognition of their importance broadens.

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