On a crowded flight from Singapore, I was hoping for sleep. Instead, I found conflict. I literally sat in the middle of it. On my left: an Indonesian woman, newly elected to replace a corrupt official. On my right: her husband, begging her to renounce the results and leave the country.
Two storylines were at play, one a vision of success; one of fear. The woman’s narrative centered on restoring honor to the position and energizing a developing economy. Her husband’s version focused on the constraints of bodyguards and the risky business of political finance.
Truth and fantasy lived in each story, and the conflict placed every pro and con on the table – or more accurately, on my seatback tray. By the end of the flight, they had an agreement – a narrative that required courage from both parties to move forward but put checks in place to offset risk.
Back home and sleepless, I made a rare stop in a fast-food joint and found more competing stories. A guy in the next booth was telling a newbie at his workplace how to skate past drug tests. He even boasted of rigging his binding machine to slow the line so he could lean a certain way, tilt his tinted glasses, and sleep three times per shift.
The newbie saw the bindery as a fresh start where he’d be respected and rewarded. The veteran told him to forget that idea and grab what he could before the company bled him dry. Two stories were vying for the new employee and the future of the bindery. Which would win: the values on a page in a handbook, or the tales of a machine operator in a burger booth?
Our brains are hardwired to crave these stories. They bring order to chaos so we can make sense of the world. A plan, a goal, a hope, a fear – each is a vital tale in our heads. For thousands of years, we’ve kept stories alive because they’ve done the same for us.
The stories we tell ourselves become shortcuts to thinking. We filter incoming data through them and reject information that doesn’t fit the tales we believe. That finely honed survival process speeds our reaction time, but now and then, we need to slow down. We need to question the accuracy of our current story and open it to new perspectives.
Willingness to challenge our stories comes from one of two places: crisis or commitment. In the case of the Indonesian couple, willingness came from both. Crisis brought the issue front and center, but a sense of commitment and belonging to each other gave the couple the strength to question their individual assumptions. Likewise, a business that fosters belonging and commitment develops the confidence to withstand challenges to its narrative.
Take a minute to think about competing stories in your workplace. Let’s say a key claim of the organization is that it puts customers first. Pick a story that exemplifies this value. Hold it vividly in your mind. Now flip to the opposite, and uncover that customer-last moment.
Your brain will struggle to hold both images at the same time, so you’re forced into a four-way choice: 1) blame the customer when the worst is true, and stick to your story; 2) abandon your current story, and adopt the negative one; 3) blend the two; or 4) keep your aspirational story, but work to fix the discrepancy.
The blind faith of the first option could create unique branding: “We put you first … unless you’re a jerk.” Option two benefitted a Boston eatery made popular by verbally abusing its customers. Option three is an honest approach: “We put you first … except on Thursdays when we’re kind of cranky.” Option four admits you haven’t arrived yet but will do whatever it takes to get there. Your level of urgency to close the gap will depend on your levels of crisis or commitment.
Developing your organization’s true narrative takes more than this simple exercise, but try it for starters, and email me about the experience. I’d love to hear what you discover.
Dave Bender is an associate at Work Wisdom LLC, a firm specializing in organizational culture, communication, collaboration, conflict and coaching. He can be reached at email@example.com.