Gardner wrote in Changing Minds that to “capture the attention of a disparate population: create a compelling story, embodying that story in one’s own life, and presenting the story in many different formats so that it can eventually topple the counterstories in one’s culture.”Gardner (2004), p. 82. Stories can, and do, shape culture in positive and negative ways. They help shape processes such as orienting new employees; they can serve as symbols that reinforce norms such as cubicles for employees and suites for executives; or they can create organizational heroes and heroines such as employee stories of leaders that go the extra mile.
Storytelling is an excellent way for leaders to garner staff involvement, bring new clients to an organization, or paint a vision of an organization’s future. In its essence, storytelling is about how you communicate your vision, your goal, or your objective to listeners—in other words, storytelling can help you get your point across. Telling different stories can initiate different actions from story listeners, eliciting stories that speak to their behaviors and their experiences.
The impact of storytelling in organizations has become increasingly important because stories are memorable, no matter how poorly or well told they are. Emerging research studies show that storytelling has a tremendous affect on an organization’s capacity to grow and manage change. Organizations in transition that use elements of storytelling demonstrated improvements in team performance and in overall project management. Although the research literature on storytelling is limited, the importance of storytelling is being noted on an international level. Stories, like Gardner expressed, are powerful tools, and when the right story is told, leaders can take the proper action needed for intercultural work.
Storytelling Unites Cultures
Storytelling is a unique strategy for socializing members into your organization and encouraging them to abide by cultural norms and values. This technique is especially helpful in guiding new members in understanding company values and beliefs. New employees will have assumptions about what to expect in their first day on the job. They often create their own realities, through their own stories, of what the organization is to them based on the behaviors, actions, and attitudes seen, heard, or felt during this initial phase. For current employees, storytelling emphasizes the important aspects of an organization’s culture that you want them to value and demonstrate in their work. Perhaps these aspects have been previously missing from the organization, and by using storytelling techniques, you automatically bring people together by creating and sharing a common story.
As leaders, it is important to cultivate stories that have meaning for employees and to guide members back to core values of the organization. For example, a principal of an elementary school may tell the story of a student who emulates her teacher in order to reveal how much impact teachers have on children. An executive director of a nonprofit organization will tell a story of the organization’s founder by describing the founder’s personality, character, and vision to motivate current employees in their work. The choice of the stories, the characters chosen, the timing of the story, and the details emphasized will create memorable stories that stay within the minds of organizational members. Leaders can create organizational stories that will be passed on throughout the life cycle of their organizations.
Culturally intelligent leaders can shape intercultural understanding by utilizing several methods that address the underlying assumptions, beliefs, and values of its members; however, this is not an easy task. As indicated, culture oftentimes consists of unconscious behaviors, values, and assumptions that develop over time and changes may occur as new associates enter into the organization. Too often, leaders will neglect to solicit information from their employees in building the organization’s culture and values. This fallacy, often unintentional, can harm the organization and affect its leadership.
The following exercise will help you to identify stories that support intercultural interactions and understanding of culture in your place of work. By reflecting on these exercises, you will learn what stories drive your organization and what ones might be discarded:
- In the space below, list the types of jokes about intercultural work that are told in your organization. If you know the words to the jokes, write them down.
- Write down all the common phrases that are spoken in your organization related to intercultural understanding such as, “Here’s another meeting we’re required to attend on diversity,” or “I’ll work with this person but only because I have to.”
- Think of one common story that has been told in your organization. It could be a story of why your organization thinks diversity and culture is important to the work or why certain people leave the organization.
As you take a look at your responses, think about the following questions:
- What are the common stories in your organization?
- Are the stories generally positive or negative?
- What is your role in creating these stories?
- As a leader, what stories, if any, can you change in your organization?
- What steps, if any, will you take to change your organizational stories?