Storytelling’s not big in the business world.
Author and consultant David Hutchens says he encounters resistance every time he asks executives to tell him about the results they got on a project.
They generally clam up, he said, and default to standard answers. We reached our target, some executives will say. Others will tell him everything went as planned and leave it at that. They generally don’t relay the tale of what got them from point A to point B, which is what Hutchens wants to hear. They won’t naturally open up and tell him their stories despite his request as a consultant.
“It’s amazing how difficult it is for an executive to tell a story on the job, but how easy it is for him to open up at home at the end of the day,” Hutchens said.
Why is that?
The answer’s simple: It makes the executive feel vulnerable, Hutchens said in a one-on-one conversation with me this afternoon at the 2011 Systems Thinking in Action conference. Storytelling, he said, is considered a “soft skill” in a business world that encourages executives to act authoritatively. Today’s executives “need to be smart,” he said. They need to be perceived as strong; not soft.
This view, however, isn’t very helpful in fostering engagement, which is what Hutchens is trying to help executives and managers learn to do by teaching them how to tell good stories.
Hutchens said there are four types of stories that help foster engagement in the workplace—a theory he developed based on the theories of several other systems thinkers. The first story type is the story of identity, where workers and managers share their backgrounds and origins with one another. The second story type is the story of values, where a stand-out moment in the organization’s history—a moment that’s reflective of the organization’s core values and principles—is shared in narrative form. The third story type is the story of vision, where a narrative about desired future goals is told in the present tense. The fourth story type is the story of change and learning, where workers and managers share how their perspectives before and after an event occurs.
Hutchens’ discussed the importance of storytelling with conference attendees on Monday during his session, The Stories We Create: Narrative and Engagement in Organizations. Hutchens said he started telling a story about Walmart during his talk that resonated with one audience member, who felt compelled to share his own story and view of the company with Hutchens after the session wrapped. That’s the spark of engagement that one story can creates—the need to open up and share different stories and different views, a concept most executives and managers don’t understand.
A former advertising executive, Hutchens fell into systems thinking by linking up with Pegasus Communications in the late 1990s after ending a short career in organizational learning at Coca-Cola. He began writing and publishing systems-related books soon after in the form of fables.
One of his books, Outlearning the Wolves: Surviving and Thriving in a Learning Organization, was based on his experience helping Coca-Cola develop an organizational learning plan, Hutchens said. In the book, a flock of sheep face a serious issue—a pack of wolves keep moving in and eating several of them at night. As a group, the sheep address this problem by questioning their mental models and assumptions until they collectively find a solution.
“Like anything creative, it’s lateral thinking,” Hutchens said about his tales. “I can’t tell you how those neurons connected [to come up with the story], but they did.”
As far as having executives, managers, and workers open up in the workplace and connect with one another through storytelling, Hutchens said most people believe there’s too much risk involved involved in storytelling. The risk, he said, lies in the not knowing what others think or perceive once the story is told.
But “with increased risk comes higher engagement,” Hutchens said. “I think we want full engagement.”
The first step in opening up and learning how to tell a good story?
“Listen to how you talk,” Hutchens said.
NOTE: This post was submitted from the 2011 Systems Thinking in Action conference hosted by Pegasus Communications in Seattle, Washington. Photo of David Hutchens and the books he has authored courtesy of Aimee C. Juarez.