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