Organizational fairy tales


To thrive and succeed, organizations need to be brutally honest with themselves. “Confronting reality” is a necessary first step toward crafting a realistic vision and strategy for the future. But what if I said we need to balance this rigorous realism and rationalism with a few good old-fashioned stories?

We may no longer find ourselves sitting in a cave around a fire passing along oral history in the form of stories, but they are everywhere we turn in the form of books, movies, TV shows, gossip…blog posts. Stories also live within organizations and have the power to shape their culture and guide the behavior of the people in it. Organizational storytelling is an activity aimed at taking advantage of this natural human proclivity.

The stories that are told inside and about organizations are fundamental to the culture and climate of a place. Some of these stories form the basis of organizational memory – how the organization began and who the founders are. Maybe your “founding fathers” story touches on the notion of the little guys overcoming great odds to pull success from the hands of lumbering competitors. They hallmark the values and guiding vision of the organization. Historical storytelling often taps key events (when we won our biggest client, when we moved into our own building) and key people (every year the CEO gives everyone a generous bonus, from his executive team down to the janitor) to reflect back to employees the history and values of the organization.

The storytelling leader shares these stories at events such as all-hands meetings and holiday parties, and they are leveraged when onboarding new people. They are a way to engage with people, to communicate, “this is what we are about.” Stories are a unique form of communication, because they are emotional, evocative. They help people connect to one another, foster emotional connection to the organization, and make meaning by linking their day-to-day tasks with a larger narrative.

Leaders and managers can also leverage the power of stories during challenging periods to help people buy into a change or by reflecting back prior successes. Stories help people appreciate parallels, apply learning, and galvanize for action. In fact, the use of certain hallmark aspects of stories – visual imagery, evocative language, the use of metaphors – is something effective communicators do naturally. Stories respect the rational brain but speak the language of the emotional brain.

Stories are such a natural human behavior that they will be told. Leaders can choose to shape the storytelling that takes place or let the grapevine grow untended. In a void, stories happen, and it is to the organization’s detriment to allow negative storytelling in the form of gossip to proliferate. Taking charge of the organization’s stories also gives you an opportunity to give employees a voice, to weave their story into the tapestry of the broader organization. Stories implore us to participate, be part of the story! We all want to be part of something bigger. Stories kindle hearts and ignite action. Organizations need to balance rigorously honest discourse with engaging storytelling about the company’s past, present, and future. What stories can you take to your people today?

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” –An old Native American proverb