The Storytelling Trap

Ever have a conversation with one of your employees that you thought went well, only to discover confusion and disappointment thereafter? Perhaps you’ve fallen into the Storytelling Trap.

We humans are storytelling machines. We cannot NOT tell ourselves stories about how the world around us is working. Typically, our stories are cogent representations of life and so do not clue us into what we might be missing. In addition, if our story is one we have repeated to ourselves or others regularly, we may well have increased our certainty about them.

In light of this, it is a wonder that any conversation with another ever holds together. The rub is when we have emotional underpinnings of our stories, which happens more often than we are aware. The emotional connections within the story compound the feeling of certainty and thereby make change, communication, and compromise even more difficult.

Here is a typical example. You have two groups reporting to you who do pretty much the same thing and the span of control is not working as you hoped. You have been studying the numbers and you now believe if you switched one small portion of one group to the other in terms of reporting relationships, there would be benefits to the bottom line. In other words, after careful analysis, you have changed your story to a new one.

You call in the manager, Edward, who is currently managing that small group and tell him you are going to make this change. Edward doesn’t say much about it, but your sense is that he doesn’t really care one way or the other.

Edward, however, leaves your office dumbfounded. What has he done wrong? You just told him last week that you thought he was doing an excellent job, so why are you breaking up his team? Your story about him has changed and he is confused and frightened by that. Edward was so surprised by your revelation that he didn’t know what to say, and now it seems like it is a done deal.

Later in the day, you call in the other manager and tell him about the change. The two of you agree when the change will take place. Your story is concluded: a small reorganization and things will look better soon.

Edward can’t sleep that night. He comes into your office first thing the next morning, distressed about his prospects and defensive about his performance. You spend a full hour trying to explain your thinking and calm him down. The two of you agree that the change will happen, because you’ve already talked to the other manager. You talk about how to word the announcement about the change. Edward leaves your office clearly still distressed, and you are now wondering if he is up to his job, when only 24-hours previously you counted him as an excellent employee and leader.

What Went Wrong?

A common story in business, believed by many a manager, is that (a) the boss gets to decide stuff and (b) those reporting to him then execute. However, business is full of these kinds of clueless stories. In this case, you tripped over your own belief that your story was right. Edward had a very normal reaction to the potential of being shamed (see The Power of Shame), and is still the excellent employee you thought he was. More times than we’d like to think, these small interactions are the beginning of the end of positive employee relationships.

What Can You Do?

The human brain has evolved over time to protect us from harm and help us maintain safety (among other things). This wonderful organ is hard-wired in ways that allow us to predict potential emotional reactions. There are many factors involved in dealing with our own and others emotions. It is complex and typically unpredictable. But there are some specific actions you can take to increase your effectiveness as a great leader, and potentially retain great talent around you.

  • Slow down. In the story above, you spent 2 minutes in the initial conversation and an hour in the follow-up. Enter discussions having to do with change with the idea that they will take time and may have to happen in several small doses. This will allow you and others to have emotional reactions and process them more effectively.
  • Seek to understand. Make sure your agenda isn’t simply a monologue aimed at convincing the other person you are right.
  • Imagine Various Scenarios. If you are thinking of implementing a change that will affect others, ask yourself about the common feelings that might come into play. Change evokes fear. If you can help others feel safe in the face of change, you can be a powerful leader.

Are you rushing through discussions with your employees without attention to their reactions? Have you been surprised by others in light of a change you are implementing? Check your story about how things are working to see if a change there would be beneficial. Everything you do materializes from a story of some sort – choose one that has the best outcome.