Beware: Stories at Work!
A while back, I started initial conversations as I began to do some work for a large organisation, and in my discussions with various senior leaders, I heard some very different stories about what turned out to be the same incident.
A Regional Director told me of a meeting he and some colleagues had had with the CEO and the Head of Corporate Services. The idea was to sort out some of the problems that the Regions had with Head Office – which, they said, were impeding much needed improvements. ‘But,’ he told me, ‘it quickly became apparent that such conversation - conversation where we actually got down to the brass tacks of who in Head Office was doing what that causes us grief and stops us from implementing our programme of continual improvement – was not welcome. We were quickly and forcefully closed down, and the conversation was steered onto more general topics.’
In another conversation, some time later, the Head of Corporate Services was lamenting the culture of criticism and blame in the organisation. He mentioned a meeting that had turned from a problem solving meeting into a character assassination. He was proud that, out of loyalty to his staff, he had quickly made it clear that he would not take part in any such conversation taking part behind someone’s back.
And discretely checking a few details later, I realised that these two senior and well-intentioned people were talking about the very same interaction.
That incident strikes me as a very clear example of different stories held by the individuals concerned leading to a very unsatisfactory outcome. And of course, each will take away new evidence for a further story. The Regional Director now has evidence for a story that Head Office really aren’t interested in improvement: they talk the talk of dialogue and understanding, but when you try to engage with them, they don’t like it and shut you down. And the Head of Corporate Services has evidence for a new story that those Regional Directors will assassinate peoples’ characters behind their back, given half a chance.
So my challenge is helping them to recognise how unhelpful some of their current stories are, to discover some new and more helpful ones, and embed those in the way they relate to each other. It should be both fun and rewarding.