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Renewing Our "Story" in the Workplace

By: Dennis Rebelo | 21 Jul | 2 comments


A lot of people consider “storying” an inborn knack or talent. Some listen intently, while others envy the natural-born storytellers around them. Truth is, natural “storying” with strategic intent can be learned by anyone. 

"Storying," or storytelling, as a means of expressing personal identity has risen in popularity recently among career advisors and executive consultants. Leadership researchers have also become intrigued in studying the notion of storying.

Among rhetorical strategies, telling a "good story" helps people make meaning.  Several authors note that storying also increases the likelihood that a person's identity claims will be accepted by others.

We all have identity claims that we bring with us, especially when we enter a new workplace. With more pressure placed on executives to make meaning for their employees through storytelling, it's clear why business scholars have become increasingly enchanted in studying narrative as a means of knowing, as a means of understanding work identity, and as a means of effectively leading organizations. 

So, what’s my story going to be? You may wonder.

That's a question contemplated by so many people I meet these days—from workers in transition to new hires. With possibilities and opportunities ripening before them, this group of professionals feel compelled to create or shape a "provisional" or "new" self. If their stories don't make relevant meaning for others, their audience of leaders, peers, and followers may not validate their claims—yikes! 

What most of these professionals fail to see is that their storying "rights" expire about 90 days after joining an organization—yes, there is a shelf life to storying. It's a estimated timeframe of "story allowances" that new leaders and peers concede before zoning out the narrative.

Winging and flinging stories around will never grant an employee a chance to renew or refresh the desired work identity they wish to have once that time period elapses.

The point is simple: Story matters.

Structured storying is the answer to these desired claims. This answer, however, is not easily found.

In today's world, employees are no longer hitched to organizations for countless years.  With so much "people transitioning" happening at work, understanding the reason for an organizational change and the “why” behind it makes sense, especially for followers meeting a senior executive for the first time. In this case, the leader tells the story.

If the story makes sense, you breathe another day. If the story doesn't t make sense, then perhaps the organizational shelf life becomes a bit limited. 

Meaning-making concerning work role transitions seems to have been glossed over in the past, but the confluence of identity, work and story seems to be inspiring a new focus in career counseling and narrative research. According to the 2010 essay "Identity as Narrative: Prevalence, Effectiveness and Consequences of Narrative Identity Work in Macro Work Role Transitions," authors Herminia Ibarra and Roxana Barbulescu believe that the identity as narrative "is especially critical for our understanding of identity dynamics during the macro work role transitions.”

So how do you story or share a story structure to renew your work image? You’ll have to consider the following factors:

  1. Personal identity is best understood in narrative form (past, present and future);
  2. Work places have cultures that dictate how (from a style perspective) to story best;
  3. Leaders and followers who story discover more in their storytelling;
  4. Storying is often a “live test” in which storytellers fail to understand their own intentionality so pre-reflection can help story shape before the telling and help a person’s point-making;
  5. Stories are culturally different or can be;
  6. Stories typically resolved unknowns;
  7. Great stories are sneaky and inspire the listener with delight;
  8. Metaphors help stories by making difficult concepts easier to understand and accept by listeners;
  9. Powerful stories are simple yet not simplistic;
  10. If a story causes doggie-head tilt reactions, it's effectively grabbing listeners at the onset and increasing retention and retelling.

I'm blessed to work with transitioning executives, family businesses, and professionals who understand the value of storying.  I feel such connection to the plight of those who suffer from story reluctance that I am using my doctoral studies at Saybrook to better understand how successful work role stories are formed.

Telling a good story will undoubtedly foster organizational acceptance for individuals, allowing them to have real impact in the workplace, a feeling of settledness on the home front, and an internal feeling of confidence that motivates to continue to story and, above all, make meaning for others.

NOTE: Dennis Rebelo is scheduled to discuss the "Phenomenological Underpinnings of Successful Threshold Storying as a Means of Navigating Work and Life Change” at the 30th International Human Science Research Conference at Saint Catherine’s College in Oxford, England, this month.

Read other posts by Dennis Rebelo

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Comments and Discussions

re: Renewing Our "Story" in the Workplace

In addition to other responsibilities, my team trains and people in recovery from mental illness to support their peers along their own recovery journeys. A crucial piece of this work is the sharing of one's personal narrative as a story of survival and success, as opposed to endurance and suffering -- we contrast "recovery stories" and "illness stories," for shorthand. I couldn't agree more with the basic premises of this post.

One question with which I often find myself faced is the idea of when and how to use one's story effectively as a tool in service to others -- not just telling the story, but drawing upon it with some regularity as a point of reference. I would be curious as to the author's thoughts on the life of a story beyond the moment of its telling.

re: Renewing Our "Story" in the Workplace

Part of my work involves training people in recovery from mental illness to support their peers along their own recovery journeys. A critical component of this work is the framing an use of one's personal story in service to others and to the organization in which one works.
As a brief example, we differentiate between a "recovery story" and an "illness story," based in part on the extent to which a person characterizes their experience as one of survival and overcoming adversity or as one of suffering and limitation. We discuss at length the effectiveness of various story-sharing techniques.
I would be interested in the author's thoughts on the use of a story as referent once the story has been told -- what makes it effective, and what skills do we apply as we determine what what parts of our stories to use, and how we do so.


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