Organisational storytelling – a game of whispers?

on Nov 9, 2013 in Blog


TwigsMy 8 year old niece loves a game of whispers when the family is gathered together.  You know the one – someone whispers something into the next person’s ear and they pass it on, until the final person says it out loud. Then you find out all the different versions of the message that people heard.

When we play, the more outlandish the end result, the more my niece squeals with laughter. Now, we all know this. So, while some mishearing is accidental, I suspect that other ‘mishearing’ happens just to increase the level of fun!

This made me think about what goes on in organisations.  As stories are passed around, they often undergo subtle changes.  Maybe people mishear, maybe they misremember, maybe they choose to misinform. Certainly they (mis)interpret what they hear in terms of their own experience and using their own interpretive frameworks.  So, what we often have are multiple stories about particular events co-existing.

Understanding these stories about events can be really helpful to anyone who’s trying to discover the patterns emerging during change. The subtle reformulations and changes in message can be easy to miss, but may provide vital clues about how people are responding. One organisation needed to discourage car use (to comply with environmental directives) in order to get planning permission to add more buildings on its land. But, in some parts of the organisation, the proposal to introduce car parking charges became a story about how management didn’t care about staff or value them. Then other stories started circulating about the terrible things that management were doing. And, of course, those stories were hidden from management.

So, especially in times of change, it can be valuable to learn about these multiple, co-existing stories, in order to learn from them. If we can discover more about the stories people tell, then maybe we can choose how we respond and start to change those stories.