We don’t have any particularly strong family traditions at Christmas. Other than storytelling. This year we spoke about my mother (long since dead) who always gave away presents. She was into ‘re-cycling’ before the term was coined. One year she received a pair of moccasin slippers from my sister-in-law, Audrey. These were duly passed on as a present to one of my sisters, Mary. Mary is afflicted with the same ‘give away everything’ gene. Not knowing where the slippers had come from in the first place, she gave them back to Audrey, adding the ‘white lie’ that they had been specially selected for her. We had a good laugh when that story emerged. This year we shared lots of stories about my sister Phyllis who died a couple of weeks before Christmas. Phyllis was quite a character and we’d plenty to discuss. Of the 10 kids in my own family, she was the first one to pass away; there’s something symbolic in the breaking of that particular circle. In relation to the death of your peers, Sean O’Rourke of RTE fame uses the expression “They’re cutting our field now”. He tells the story of a funeral attended in Galway, where one of the mourners asked about the deceased: “Was he complaining long?” to which the reply was: “All his f***ing life”. In all her years, I don’t think that I ever heard Phyllis complain about anything. She was one of the most stoic people I’ve ever met and we miss her terribly. Over the last couple of years I’ve developed some expertise in writing eulogies. Now, there’s a skill you never want to acquire.
Your Organization: In the same way that stories define family traditions, they also define your organization. When I worked in NCI, working with the Simon Community we set up a Christmas dinner for the homeless. The signal: we are lucky to have a job and to work there. Was this manipulative? Perhaps. Did it work? Yes, I think so. It helped us see the glass as half full and helped the clients of the Simon community in a small way.
Power of Storytelling: For thousands of years stories have been used by every culture as the primary communication tool for transmitting values. Stories are used to teach the young, reward people who live by the rules of society and punish those who violate those rules. Without storytelling, any culture — whether it’s a traditional tribe or a large corporation — would have a difficult time protecting and passing on the best traditions. Tribal chiefs don’t hand out statistical reports to teach followers what’s right and wrong in their world. They are master storytellers (in many tribes a person’s skill as a storyteller is one of the reasons that individual is chosen to be the chief or shaman/priest).
The primary purpose of storytelling is to produce a specific outcome — learning, reward, punishment, comfort, etc. The style and tone of the story is important in making sure that the story is interesting instead of boring. Neil Simon, the American Playwright said: “If no-one ever took risks, Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor”. It is important for the storyteller to be skilled enough to make the message of the story clear to the listeners. But the real question that defines whether it’s a positive or negative story hasn’t changed for thousands of years: is the story good for the group and the individuals who hear it, or not?
90 Percent Factor: How is this powerful communication tool being used in your organization? Do people understand that the ripple effect of just one story can be massive? Is anyone managing this powerful tool or is it a loose cannon? Over one hundred audiences of managers and employees from different companies were asked to think of a story that they had heard or told in the past few weeks about their organization. When asked to vote on whether the story they had in mind was positive, negative, or neutral (in terms of the message it carried about the company), over 90 percent of every audience voted negative. Is this informal survey of storytelling in organizations an accurate reflection of what’s going on? Any culture that tells over 90 percent negative stories about itself is being destroyed from the inside out. The history books are filled with examples of once-powerful cultures that disintegrated and died from internal rot, not external attack. Is the 90 percent negative storytelling report a clue that the same kind of internal self-destruction may be happening in your organization? The questions for you personally: What stories do I tell? What stories could I tell?
Stories are a manageable communication tool that can help you to accomplish your mission, protect the morale of employees and satisfy your customers. Are you using this to maximum effect?
PS To read more on this have a look at Corporate Legends & Lore by Peg Neuhauser
Quote of the Week: Talking to a senior executive about how the Christmas break went and she offered the following observation: “You can only be as happy as your unhappiest child”. There’s a song in that. No, wait, that’s a bit unambitious. An Opera.
PPS Lighter Note: The Leitrim Farmer (courtesy of John McGlynn)
Paddy McCoy, an elderly Irish farmer, received a letter from the Department of Social Protection stating that they suspected he was not paying employees the statutory minimum wage. They were sending an inspector to interview staff. On the appointed day, the inspector showed up.
“Tell me about your staff,” he said to Paddy.
“Well,” said Paddy, “there’s the farm hand; I pay him €350 a week, and he has a free cottage. Then there’s the housekeeper. She gets €290 a week, along with free board and lodging. There’s also the half-wit. He works a 16 hour day, does 90% of the work, earns about €50 a week along with a bottle of whisky and, as a special treat, occasionally gets to sleep with my wife.”
“That’s disgraceful” said the Inspector, “I need to interview the half-wit.”
”That’ll be me then” said Paddy.
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