Telling better stories

Funny Baby Girl In Glasses Reading A Book In A Library

Many parents look forward to story time with their children at the end of the day. More than simply an opportunity to connect, storytelling is deeply embedded in the human psyche. It offers us a way to join together, empathise and make meaning in our lives.

In the workplace – too – leaders are often encouraged to tell inspiring, visionary stories that will motivate their people. And, as Brené Brown says in her most recent book – Rising Strong – we’re all very good at making up stories. Unfortunately they often hook us into the negative meaning we’re making about events and circumstances in our lives.

As we walk the Balanced Leader journey we’re likely to face three types of stories.

First are the stories that define our employer’s corporate culture. The ones that talk about “the way we do things around here” and the organisational heroes. About what will bring rewards, what’s needed to succeed and what’s not possible here. Stories like: “the best managers are the ones that work long hours – that’s how they show commitment.” These stories are often so deeply embedded in the corporate psyche they become the water in which we swim. We need to remain alert to our stories of limitation. In an earlier blog I wrote about Appreciative Inquiry which is a powerful tool for delving into stories.

Secondly, there are the stories we make up about the people around us. Stories like: “my manager is unsympathetic to my need for a flexible arrangement so there’s no point in asking.” “My employer doesn’t value my skills and won’t accommodate me – I either put up with the pressure or leave” and “if I work flexibly my co-workers will resent me”.

Finally there are the stories we make up about ourselves. “I’m happy to take a demotion to work flexibly while my kids are small. It keeps me on the career ladder and I want to be a good mother.” “I’m powerless to negotiate a more flexible arrangement in my current job.” “I don’t want others to judge me as a typical working mother – not committed to her job and struggling to manage her childcare.”

Many of the stories we buy into disempower us. They’re often based on untested assumptions, fear and outmoded thinking. The thing is: until we take a bold step we cannot be sure which of these stories are true. And just as the stories we read to our children grow and develop with them so our corporate stories need to do the same. Sometimes it comes down to us as Balanced Leaders to rewrite the story.

For our own benefit and that of our children let’s own our stories, recognising them for what they are. Let’s explore new possibilities for living more balanced lives. And let’s turn our existing stories of limitation into what Brené Brown calls:

“a story of great possibility, of what could be if our best selves showed up”.

Fostering a Balanced Working Culture

Appreciative Inquiry is a change process developed by David Cooperrider towards the end of the last century. Generally included in the broad category of ‘Positive Psychology’ it’s an approach likely to appeal to women for three reasons.

  1. It’s conversation based – playing to women’s interpersonal skills. It recognises our human tendency to make meaning through dialogue: the “social construction of reality”. And it’s inclusive: extending the conversation to as many people as possible.
  2. The questions asked are the “tools for change”. Not just any questions but well constructed ones that sow the potential for change by directing our attention. For women in the workplace it offers a way to take the lead without being judged as controlling.
  3. The focus is on building the future – the new and emergent – not on fixing the old. It’s a perspective likely to resonate with parents. When we bring up our children our focus is generally on future potential.

Cooperrider has outlined five key principles of Appreciative Inquiry which we can put to use in fostering change towards a more balanced working culture.

  1. Organisations are living human constructions not mechanical systems that exist independently of the people within them. In many cases they are literally man-made with cultures established in the last century to support male ways of working. What this means is that we can reconstruct our organisations to better meet changing social expectations. Our mothers and grandmothers started this process when they asked for arrangements such as part-time, term-time and job-share. It’s down to us to continue the process by re-shaping work at more senior levels so that organisations become more truly inclusive for women.
  2. Inquiry is intervention. When we ask the right questions and ensure the right focus we begin the process of change. So rather than believing flexible working is impossible at senior levels we ask “where and when have we seen someone in a senior role successfully work flexibly – in this organisation or this industry?” One of the most powerful questions I ask when beginning a consulting assignment is “who in this organisation has experience of flexible working arrangements at senior levels?” It’s always surprising to learn how much knowledge already exists under the radar. And these people become the organisation’s ‘database of experts’ – a key resource able to provide insights into how specific arrangements can succeed.
  3. Human organisations are more like open books – constantly being re-written – than closed systems. So Appreciative Inquiry uses storytelling to identify our ‘cultural artefacts’. What do our current role models for success look like? What behaviour is rewarded? What stories do we tell ourselves about the organisation and its culture? We then begin to re-write these stories looking for new heroes and new achievements. Rather than talking about the manager who works long hours and drives her people hard we begin to talk about the one who manages to work a flexible arrangement successfully and the many benefits this has brought to her staff and clients.
  4. Our collective imagination is an infinite resource for changing organisations. Rather than tying up our energy in analysing what’s going wrong we ask ourselves how it will look when things go well. The “miracle question” I talk about in this post is a great place to start.
  5. The momentum for change is more effective when positive energy is harnessed. We know this is true. When we become excited about the potential benefits gained by achieving a positive goal we’re likely to put more energy into the process.

A short blog post like this cannot do justice to a complex process like Appreciative Inquiry. But – in the spirit of the process – it can begin to draw attention to what’s important and to ask the right question. So: where are you focusing your energy – in overcoming objections to flexible working or in creating a shared vision of how it could work for everyone?