Storytelling and Narratives in Organizational Leadership - (Ep 6)

An interview with Benjamin John Peters

By David Worley - March 17, 2019


Storytelling is one aspect of what makes us human. In this episode, we discover the significance of narratives in organizational leadership.

SHOW NOTES


2:51 What goes into a story or narrative that makes it work for the human reader or listener.

5:03 Stories frame what we will see in organizations.

10:47 Values are directly tied to the narrative, or set of narratives, an organization chooses to tell.

12:31 Why “being on the same page” (figuratively) is literally tied to story telling in an organization.

15:07 Shared experience is essential for shared narratives; onboarding processes are an optimal time to accomplish this.

17:47 For every value an organization espouses, there should be at least one shared story in the organization.

20:34 How to critically listen for values. What is told, what is left out, and doing so without judgment.

26:33 How to ask questions of yourself to better understand your own values.

LINKS

benjaminjohnpeters.com
Through All the Plain (2014)
Sigurd’s Lament (2017) 
Augustine’s Pear (2018)

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

David: 00:01 Hi everybody. Welcome to the Groler Podcast. I'm David Worley. Have you ever thought about the way storytelling and narratives reflect our values both as individuals and as organizations? We engage this topic this week on the Groler Podcast.

David: 00:37 On this episode we welcome Dr. Benjamin Peters. Ben is [an] expert on narrative and storytelling. Ben, thanks for being on the show.

Ben: 00:47 Yeah, thanks for having me. I'm really excited to be here.

David: 00:51 So, Ben has a really interesting background. You can check out his website at benjaminjohnpeters.com and you'll see what I'm talking about. I know Ben from a shared PhD program that we were both in, but if you look at Ben's bio he has always been a teacher of some sort and always been a creative agent, a person who creates stories and engages in storytelling. But he's practiced that in so many different ways. He's been an English teacher in Cambodia. He's been a high school teacher. He's taught both undergraduates and graduate students here in the States. He currently is working in user interface design. And then on top of all that he served the United States as a US Marine in Iraq. And so, Ben, in kind of that large array of different experiences, you know, how would you describe yourself and tell us about what drives you?

Ben: 01:51 Yeah, thank you for that introduction. You know, I would say what drives me currently, and the way I think about myself, even though I've had, like you said, these random, vast experiences. I think of myself as a reader and a writer. Maybe another way to say that as a storyteller, but on my old website my tagline was "reader first." I've always been captivated by reading and writing and telling stories. And I think in some ways what I like about stories and I'm sure we'll get here, is the ability to weave together all these disparate experiences into a cohesive beginning, middle, and end.

David: 02:31 So you know, Ben storytelling is central to what it means to be human. And it surrounds us all the time. And yet it's interesting to me that we so rarely stop to think about the form of the story or form of a narrative. And so would you tell us a little bit about what goes into a story and what makes it work for a human reader or listener?

Ben: 02:59 Yeah, that's a great question. I think what goes into a story and what makes it work for a reader, or somebody who has experienced it, right; so what goes into a story at its simplest, its core, and this goes back all the way to Aristotle, is you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. That's the story. And a story, you know, we could define it very simply as what happened. Versus something like a plot, which is how you arrange what happened. Because you and me could tell the story of this morning doing this podcast, we could both say we sat down and we did a podcast. That's what happened. What makes storytelling interesting is you and me could arrange what happened differently.

David: 03:47 Hmm, interesting.

Ben: 03:47 You know, I could start at the end and have this, you know, postmodern contextualized, crazy story, where, you know, people walk into the office and they you know, they break up the podcast and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And you could do something very different where maybe the story starts with you, you know, waking up and shaving or whatever it might be, right? But we can always arrange the components of what happened differently. And that's a big distinction that's often made. But those are kind of some of the key, like you said, foundational things, right? Beginning, middle and end. Story is what happened, plot is how we arrange it. Right? Pretty simple. Why it's so effective for humans. I mean, this has been debated for literally thousands of years. And I, you know, and I hesitate to say this, but I would say I think that we are wired a certain way. We're geared a certain way to think about and reflect on our lives with a beginning, middle and end. Where a lot of conflict comes in in the way, you know, in the way we tell our stories is because we arrange them differently like we've already talked about. Or we emphasize certain characters or themes or whatever it might be.

David: 05:03 So it's interesting to me Ben, one of the areas of study in formal leadership studies is the framing of problems. You know, the way that a situation is framed determines what you tend to see. And one of the thoughts that kind of popped for me in what you were just saying right there, was that organizational stories are going to influence what we see because if the story itself is fundamentally an ordering mechanism for a human listener or reader. The story we choose to tell in an organization is going to frame both the opportunities and the problems. And so by way of kind of your expansive background, can you think of times when you've been involved in an organization, whether that's the Marine Corps or a business you've worked for, or teaching, where you know a story has kind of framed the issue at hand. And tell us about that and how that might've been different had a different story I've been told.

Ben: 06:18 Yeah. Actually I can think of two great examples of this. And as you've rightly highlighted, and I'll kind of use these words as I tell this story, I think part of the way stories work when we have, I think, well let me say this, when we're talking about stories, we often think of fictional tales, right? You've already rightly pointed out that there are stories in, you know, organizations and we tell stories in organizations and those organizations shape how we do problem solving and providing solutions for our problems. Right? And so one way I talk about that, often, is to say when we experience life, it can be crazy. We have so many things that are happening. So many inputs. You dropped the kids off. You know, you're trying to find time to be with your wife, you've got to make dinner, you're working, you got that report due. We have all these things that are smashing us, and then somebody says, how was your day? The boringest story ever told is the person who says, let me tell you second by second. I woke up, I rolled over, I hit snooze. You know what I mean? Like that's not a story. So part of storytelling is the selection process of what am I going to take out from this chaos? What am I going to choose? What am I going to select. And where am I going to place it in the beginning and the middle and the end. And that's what kind of makes a story story. So I have two examples of that.

Ben: 07:40 The first one would be when you were talking about, the Marine Corps. I joined the Marine Corps. I was at recruit depot San Diego, just outside the airport. What happens is you fly into the airport in San Diego, you wait at the USO, a bus comes, you get on the bus. You drive to the recruit depot in the middle of the night, and then when the bus stops, this scary instructor jumps on the bus and he starts yelling at you, "get off my bus, get off my bus, go stand on the yellow footprints." Some of you have probably seen this on TV or you experienced it yourself. But you run off the bus and you land on the yellow footprints. And the moment you do that, what happens is the Marine Corps, and by extension the Department of Defense and the US government, are telling you this, subtly, right, implicitly, they're telling you, "you have lived by a different narrative. You have arranged your story differently, by these underlying values that culture says is okay. But now we're going to give you different values so that you can arrange your story differently so that you can be successful in the United States Marine Corps." And those values are, you know, whatever it might be in the Marine Corps. You know, faithfulness to one another, right? Semper fi, always faithful. It's going to be, you know, honesty, valor. It's going to be obedience to orders. It's going to be respect of officers, those kinds of things, right? And, and by these values, you will live out a narrative that is different from the one you grew up in, that is different from what culture tells you to do and how it tells you to live. Right? So that's one example where it's this transitional moment of "you must live differently." And it's almost this awareness, or it exposes the fact that, in order to live differently we have to instill in you different values that shape a different narrative.

David: 09:38 Interesting.

Ben: 09:39 So that's one thing. The other example where this failed, I would say is, at the beginning of my PhD program. PhDs are fulltime things you can do it part time, but it's incredibly hard to juggle jobs, kids, wife, all that stuff and a PhD; and to do it well. So, I thought what I would do is I would start a business where I would do online marketing, really online content creation, like I said, I love to write. So I was doing a lot of writing for different organizations, content strategy and that kind of stuff. So I had a great friend of mine who has his MBA and he's a really good business person. We sat down together, we drafted a business plan, we decided we were going to work together and we were going to move forward with content creation and strategy in the digital space. Problem is, I think, we got in over our head. We landed like five contracts right out of the gate and we hired a bunch of people to help us out with our content creation and strategy. And I'm doing that so I can pay for the PhD, right? So I'm kind of juggling both these worlds. Where the value slash narrative didn't fit or cohere is that we never really figured out as an institution or as an organization, what we were about and what we wanted to do. So another way to say that as we never figured out what our underlying values were. And we never ever explicitly talks about how we wanted to arrange those into a narrative. And so, so many times, you know, my partner would bring on clients or individuals to work with us for certain clients and tell them a different story or have a different underlying value than I would have. And this is not to say one of us is better than the other. We were just never on the same page. And so after about a year and a half, I had to pull back and say, I just can't. I don't want to do this anymore because we never cohered, we were never consistent and our underlying values, our narrative that we wanted to tell or how we wanted to tell it, and you've already referenced this, we were never really clear on the problem we were trying to solve for let alone a given solution. Right? And this is why something like, you know, I would say this is why branding is so important. Branding is the process of storytelling. It is you take a step out of your day, the organization steps back and they say, why do we value? What kind of story do we want to tell? How does that solve a problem in the market? What's our solution? And that has to be consistent across all mediums, all outlets, all employees from top to bottom, right? The branding is an exercise in storytelling.

David: 12:25 That's so interesting. You know, you even use the figure of speech, when you were talking about you and your partner, we were never on "the same page." Which is a direct reference to narrative or story. Your point is right on Ben. You know, I think about companies that have really clear, at least public, organizational personas. The one that stands out to me is Southwest Airlines. And if you've ever read anything about Southwest, in fact for listeners this would be a nice little challenge. I bet you, if you go and Google, and I haven't tried this, so this isn't a planted comment, so I might be wrong about this. But if you Google, you know, history of southwest airlines, I can already tell you what the underlying macro theme of all the stories will be. And it'll be something along the lines of "we are rule breakers." You know, I remember a story from one of the founders who talked about, you know, basically the big airlines trying to squeeze them out of the market and not giving them gates and the different things they did. And so out of that narrative, you get a company like Southwest basically saying, we're changing the rules. Everybody else charges you for your bags. We don't charge you for your bags. Flight attendants are rude on a lot of airlines, our flight attendants are delightful and funny, right? So that narrative, or that value set of being innovators and rule breakers, [is] undergirded by institutional stories. You don't get to stand up and say, if you're Southwest Airlines, we're rule breakers. That that doesn't go anywhere. The way you establish that is by telling stories again and again and again. And lo and behold, just as you articulated really brilliantly there, the people get on the same page. Why? Because story's organize our existence. So, that's really interesting. If you were to advise, let's imagine that, now we have "Ben Peters management consultant." Here's a new business idea for Ben. You're called into a room of leaders and they say, "Ben, you know, you're a professional storyteller," (for listeners to this interview, Ben has written multiple things and he continues to write every day and push it out in the public. So he's a professional writer and storyteller.) "Ben, you're a storyteller. What would you say to us to advise us in helping us to align our team toward a shared goal?" What would be your tips?

Ben: 15:04 Yeah, that's a great question. I think part of it is, and particularly if you're a leader and you feel the pressure in your organization to make sure that this narrative is consistent. I think so much of storytelling and the way narratives spread, or cohere to use that term again, is through shared experience. One thing I mean by that, or an example would be, if I was in a book group and I wanted to talk about a particular book on a Friday night, that's a pretty boring Friday night.

David: 15:42 Sounds like a great Friday night to me!

Ben: 15:44 Book club, Friday night! It wouldn't work if everybody else in the group didn't read the book. Right? We can't, there's no shared experience there. We're not telling the same story together. We're not on the same page. Right? We're talking about totally different things. And so if you're a leader and you're trying to have this narrative cohere, I think part of it is being around your people enough that you're able to identify their values, their language, the stories they tell, how they tell them that you're connected. That there's not this buffer between you and middle management and you and the people that, you know, quote unquote "underlings" to use a terrible term. But however that might look, what does it look like to create experiences that are shared in your organizational culture so that your narratives can start to spread up, down and out? Right. I think that's a really important piece of it. I would say one other thing, the idea of branding I was talking about before. I think it's really important that everybody's on the same page in terms of what are our values? How do we express them? How do we order our experiences? How do we order our customer experiences? How do we report our narrative in the market? Right? And I think this is exemplified by things like onboarding processes where you're going to bring somebody new on. They're going to transition from Apple to Google or Apple to Dell or Dell to HP or whatever it might be. Let's say you're transitioning, you have an onboarding process, which is this moment in which you say, hey, just like the Marine Corps, you're getting off the bus and you're putting yourself on the yellow footprints, and we have to let you know, these are our values, this is how they flow into our organizational narrative and this is how we live these out in the marketplace.

David: 17:41 That's super interesting; a thought popped through my mind when you were talking. You know, for every value that an organization espouses, there really should be at least at least one shared story that nails that value. So one really tangible piece of advice and perhaps branding and management consultants have already said this, I don't know this, this is just coming from our conversation here. Is that for every different value that you really want to articulate, you should be able to tell a story that gets at that value. Otherwise the value is untethered from the organizational reality in any sort of meaningful way.

Ben: 18:28 Yeah, it becomes theoretical.

David: 18:29 Yup. Ben, you know something that pops into my mind about being a new leader in an organization. You know, when you're trying to figure out who you're working with and who you're working for, it strikes me as being useful to listen to the stories people tell. And I'm talking both the formal stories in terms of what is said in the company material or in the organizational print material or a website. But I also mean what stories are told around the water cooler or what stories are told in the hallway before and after the meeting. Because you know, those stories indicate an underlying almost like macro narrative that is at least functioning in a group or subgroup. And so what tips, you know, at the open of of this interview, you talked about being, both a reader and a story teller. What tips do you have for people in terms of when they listen or hear an organizational story, what should they be listening for to really understand the narrative arc?

Ben: 19:35 Yeah, that's such a great question. What I've mentioned before about the way we piece together stories, right? So this is going to get a little theoretical for a minute or a little heady but follow me because I think it makes a lot of sense and it's going to answer your question. As I said before, life can be chaotic, right? Life can be crazy. We have all these different inputs from kids and family and work and bosses and colleagues and all kinds of different things, right? Let alone social media, right? Everything's trying to capture our attention. It bombards us all at once. And then I'd use the example of somebody walks by and says, "well tell me about your day." You have to start making selections. You start to make a coherent narrative right away. Right? This happened and then this and then this. I'm not going to tell you about the 20 minutes at lunch and I was cruising Youtube because that doesn't fit in with the coherent narrative I'm trying to explain to you or present to you. That wouldn't make sense of my day. So when you're listening at a water cooler, you're listening to these organizational narratives, what's interesting to listen for is, what was selected and what was left out, and based on both what narratives can you extrapolate from that. Or what values can you extrapolate from that? It's interesting that this organizational story chose this aspect of the organizational experience and placed it, or structured it, or arranged it in this spot. Well that's interesting. I wonder why, what value does that espouse? And the same thing for that which wasn't picked, right. I wonder why they didn't talk about customer experience there. That's interesting. I would've talked about customer experience there. Do they value something differently than I value? Is that a positive or a negative? What sense can I make of that, right? Or, or how will that change or shape the way I interact with my employees around the water cooler?

David: 21:32 That's fascinating. So both what is said in terms of the way they ordered their experience, but also what was left out. And so Ben, if you're listening and you know you keep hearing a consistent set of stories, like for instance let's say you're new and you're in the middle management of an organization and the consistent take home from the stories you're hearing from your middle management colleagues is how incompetent the CEO is. You know that's the take home.

Ben: 22:06 That never happens.

David: 22:06 Never, ever. You know, people in organizations only have nothing but unmitigated admiration for the CEO.

Ben: 22:16 Exactly.

David: 22:16 How might you begin to ask questions of your colleagues that might poke at getting at some of the things that were left out? How would a listener find out about the stuff wasn't told?

Ben: 22:31 It's funny you bring this up. This is really good what's called UX design, user experience design. How do you conduct user interviews or customer interviews in such a way that you can tease out the underlying values or narrative of what they're telling you; is one thing.

David: 22:44 Interesting.

Ben: 22:44 Yeah, right. Cause it's one thing to say, "boy, my manager really sucks. He's a jerk. He never does X, Y and Z." Right, that's never the full story and that's only ever a lead in, right? How do you dive down to what's really going on? And I think there's a caveat here. You're never trying to get somebody in trouble, right? You're trying to figure out, if you're coming at it from a UX design perspective, which is what I do, you're trying to discover how you can increase the experience of, in this case the employee, or how you can increase the experience of a customer. And in either case, you're going to have increased productivity and you're probably going to have increased profit because everybody wins when everybody has a better experience. And so one of the keys, like you've already said this, right? It is just to listen. To shut up. Don't push back. Don't argue. Don't defend yourself. Just listen. And that's actually good advice across the board. This is actually talking about storytelling this is the advice I'd give you an in a writer's group. You write a short story. You present it to somebody. You start to get their feedback. One of the things that is often said, right, is don't defend the work. It makes you look like a jerk and two, they might actually have really good feedback for you. But you have to listen to it. So one is just listen, don't get defensive. And then I would say ask open ended questions. Don't get caught in the details of, okay, tell me about that one time that the CEO was rude to you. You don't get caught up in like what happened and where were you standing and was this in line at the Starbucks or were you outside? Don't get caught up in the details. You want to dive into all the deeper emotional experiences. You want to dive into the deeper values. Because if it comes down to something like, one time the CEO was mean to me at the water cooler. Okay, tell me more about that. Like, like what happened at the water cooler? Did he position himself this way? Did he say this? That kind of stuff. The underlying thing, there might be that employee X really values humility in leaders. But you're never going to get to that level of, of valuing humility in organizational leadership unless you keep the questions open ended, let the person talk, truly be interested in the person. Don't look for quick fixes, let the person explain or work towards extrapolating their values. Because I think, and I would argue we're all similar in this, right? If somebody were to say right now to you, David, what do you value? You're probably going to work up to it. It's not the kind of thing you said. Well actually it's funny as you've mentioned that it's, it's dunt, dunt, dunt, right?

David: 25:38 In fact, if you could just articulate that, you would come off as an odd person.

Ben: 25:43 Exactly.

David: 25:43 My personal mission statement is X, Y and Z. I mean like that would actually just kind of be weird and come off as kind of canned. The working up actually would be an indication of authenticity.

Ben: 25:56 Exactly. Yeah, because it's conversational, right? It's dialogue. And a lot of ways we extrapolate or we tease out our values and our narratives and our stories through that conversation and that's maybe another thing I would suggest is this idea of continuing to converse with your employees, or even your organization as a whole, maintain a culture of conversation because it will allow for moments of teasing out values, desires, goals, all those kinds of things.

David: 26:25 That's interesting. Ben. This has been super helpful in terms of thinking about how you get to people's values. I also think that probably everything said in this interview thus far could also be turned around 180 degrees, and in the hands of a skilled communicator and skilled leader, you could actually think about how to instill values by the stories you tell and by listening for hooks in people's stories where there's an opportunity to maybe begin to draw a connection between something that happened to them and the values of the organization. So this actually works both ways. Sort of like those inside out, you know, clothes that you get, like you know a practice jersey for sports or something like that.

Ben: 27:13 Yeah, yeah. Actually and key to that, one of the big things I would say is when I say don't get defensive. One of the things is when you're listening for the underlying values of a story and you're trying to identify maybe solutions or even maybe you're trying to identify a problem statement, right? Is that we've talked about a little bit is this idea of turning it back on yourself, right? This idea of self reflexivity. Turning it back on yourself and thinking through your underlying values. The way you arrange stories. The narratives you tell yourself. And sometimes we aren't able to do that until we come up against something or somebody that tells a different story. And it's in that moment where you don't get defensive. You don't tell them that that story's wrong. Let me fix your story for you. It's a moment of self reflexivity or self reflection where you can turn it back on yourself and say, "they tell a completely different story rooted in completely different values. I wonder how I tell my story? I wonder what values shape my telling? I wonder where I should engage, or shape differently, the values that are articulating the story that I want to tell either individually or as an organization, right? So sometimes that's that difference that allows us to think through the way we tell stories and articulate our own values.

David: 28:38 That's interesting Ben. And I think super useful and applicable for our listeners. In fact, it's the perfect kind of comment to end on. Ben, thank you for being with us today and just bringing your expertise and insight. It's been a real privilege to talk with you.

Ben: 28:54 Yeah, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

David: 28:58 That concludes our interview with Ben Peters. It was interesting to me to hear specifically the way in which stories and narratives are tied to organizational values. I know I heard several new ideas and new tips that had never crossed my mind before, and I hope you found the interview useful as well. If you're new to the podcast, you can find out more about Groler at our website. That's G R O L E R dot com. On the website you'll find show notes for this episode along with the full transcript. And you may want to consider subscribing to the show. You can do so via the iTunes store or via your podcast app. Groler exists to help leaders learn and grow. So keep learning, keep growing, keep leading. Until next time I'm David Worley.
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