What’s Your Story?
It is a human experience to tell stories to communicate between each other. Psychologists and neurologists see this as the quintessential human behavior. From Homer’s Iliad to the most recent popular fiction, humans using the power of story is a staple of nearly every culture and community that has graced the earth since recorded time. The ability of a writer, or storyteller, to affect the emotions of an audience is measured in sales, box office, and printing runs.
In the workplace where adult humans co-exist in a task-driven environment, stories are used by all at every level as teaching, endorsement, suggestion, warnings, and motivation. These stories take many forms but for this post, I am concentrating on the direct relationship between you the leader, and those whom you lead.
To begin with, every human is at all times working on their own personal narrative. Each individual may be more or less inclined to actually share it, or may do so in chapters advantageous to them, but it is there. This personal narrative represents the sums of their experience and is used not only internally to make decisions of emotion, but also externally as punctuation to real-world activity. As the leader, things you say and do will be viewed through the prism of this narrative by each individual.
As a new leader getting to know your team, or perhaps your organization, there will be many opportunities for people to tell you their story. Pay careful attention because what they are telling you is exactly how they are going to respond to what you do. It will be a road map to their reactions. And pay attention you must – resist the effort to tell them “your” story at first because you risk the painful exercise of two people dying to tell the other “what they are all about”, which leads to no one hearing the other. Have you ever met someone who will in five minutes give you (unbidden) their most basic motivations in life based on a litany of the past? Painful.
Which leads me to “types” of stories that belong to people. As you learn how and why your team works, including the ones you are on and whom you serve, be aware of the most basic ways that we intellectualize our day-to-day experiences, especially in the workplace. You are either the hero of your own life, or the victim. You can be filled with moment after moment where your achievement was a consequence to hard work, determination, acceptance of responsibility and accountability, good luck, focus, careful and purposeful planning, and necessary but calculated risk. You can also be full of moments in which you were the victim of unfairness, lack of appreciation, favoritism, bad luck, jealousy, envy, or incompetence.
As you pay attention to how people tell their stories to you, consider your own. Are you hero or victim? Do you use your mistakes as examples of how not to do things? Are you able to discuss your failures and not blame others? How much responsibility have you accepted for your own life? Are you just an innocent bystander in everything you do?
Most importantly, as we consider the concept of the personal narrative, who is writing yours? Are you? Or, have you allowed others to write your story for you?