The little stories that tend to get passed around an office on a daily basis can have a profound impact on life in the workplace. “Did you hear about Susie? She was fired just for fixing the boss’ coffee wrong. Right on the spot, just like that!”
A new study on retelling stories in organizations by Stephanie L. Dailey and Larry Browning seeks to understand the functions this sort of narrative repetition can have. Ultimately, the authors found storytelling in the workplace builds the foundation for a unique organizational culture.
STORYTELLING AS ORGANIZATIONAL FOLKLORE
Workplace stories, such as the example above, function as a form of folklore within the company. As they spread through each retelling, these tales provide insight into the complexity of an organization.
The individual, the context, and the audience each inform the process of retelling the story, though the essence of the narrative always remains basically the same. Used as a way to process social information, storytelling reflects a more dynamic and fluid perception of the organization.
These stories ultimately have the potential to influence employees’ perception of reality, and have moral and behavioral implications as well.
4 REASONS RETELLING STORIES IN THE WORKPLACE MATTERS
Dailey and Browning identified several forms and functions of these retold stories:
- To control behavior: These forms of stories serve as lessons, and indoctrination to the behaviors that are either encouraged or discouraged by the moral. Themes of punishment or reward are common.
- Oppositional stories: These stories provide an outlet for expressing frustration with the company. Researchers suggested that even these types of stories can be used strategically, if key leaders in the organization are aware of them.
- Differentiation/integration: This type of story serves to answer the question, “Who are we as a group?” These stories establish the unique identity of the company, and make a distinction between the organization and its competitors. These tales shape impressions of the organization, and the employees’ place within it.
- Preparation for the future and change: These stories can be used to provide stability and a road map during times of difficulty or change by setting examples for solving problems.
IMPLICATIONS OF RETELLING STORIES: BE A GOOD LISTENER
By focusing on the process and implication of retelling stories in the workplace, researchers found that sharing stories generally establishes a sense of unity among employees. The key take-away of these findings is that it’s important for organizational leaders to be good listeners. Keep an ear out for the kinds of stories that pass through the halls of your organization, and be very selective about which ones you pass on.
Ultimately, these stories not only establish organizational culture, but inform employees’ perception of the company as well as their own behavior within its structure.