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This content was posted on  24 Jul 20  by   EnSpiral  on  Medium
Bringing Your Authentic Stories to Work

Authentic Stories in the Workplace

On the importance of systems-change leaders bringing their whole selves to work.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

In many organisational settings, there is an unspoken agreement of separation between self and work. It was long assumed, in management and organisational theory, that what was going on at home or a person’s experiences outside of work, had no bearing on their ability to run a company, be a good employee, or foster a healthy team culture. Or that they shouldn’t. The occasional exception might have been telling a personal story or anecdote that was of direct relevance to a particular challenge or situation to illustrate a point or drive home a lesson.

At an organisational level, we often think that stories are nice-to-haves that happen after the “real work”. They are seen as of little consequence outside the brand and marketing department. But the reality is that organisations are made up of humans — who heavily influence the organisation — and us humans are story-driven creatures.

In organisations which are seeking to achieve some kind of wide-scale systems change to address social or environmental challenges, a human being is an excellent proxy for thinking about the role of story. Just as creating lasting systemic change in any context relies upon embracing complexity and taking into account multiple interconnected influences, our multifaceted lives are guided by innumerable factors surrounding our experiences, circumstances, beliefs, faith, values, current state of mind, and the narratives we carry. If we want to create systemic change, we need to get better at viewing people as having systemic lives made up of multiple layers of messy and beautiful complexity. We do this by understanding their stories and what makes them tick — a process which in the corporate or organisational setting has by and large been relegated to the woefully incomplete picture painted by psychometric testing, narrowly focused interviews, and periodic performance reviews.

“With the application of the modern, industrial lens onto a complex and complete human life, somewhere along the way we have agreed that we cannot or should not share the authentic stories of our lives within our organisations.”

Social psychology research has long shown that stories guide our behaviour much more than rational, reasoned thinking, despite how much we tell ourselves we are sensible, objective beings. The guiding narratives of our organisations, influenced by the guiding narratives of the people who make an organisation, are the stars by which we chart our course.

If an organisation doesn’t have an inspiring internal story of what they are trying to achieve and why they exist, where they are going, or what will be different in the world should they be wildly successful, then the people within it will all be rowing the boat in different directions.

Thankfully, this is starting to change, particularly for teams that want to build a healthy, genuine organisational culture. Bringing your whole self to work, warts and all, and operating from your values is becoming more acceptable and even encouraged in some circles. Life is full of inspiring and educational moments, which have relevance to situations outside of those from which they emerged. If we divorce the stories that inform our everyday life from those that guide the work we do, we are missing an opportunity to bring our greatest gift — our authentic selves — into our work.

Back in 2013 when I first started working with Wellington-based social enterprise Loomio, I was delighted to discover that at team meetings, we began with a round of check-ins where each team member could spend a couple of minutes talking about what was going on in their lives. Sometimes it was an opportunity to tell a funny story or share a musing that had been on your mind, or to explain a difficult situation you might be dealing with at home. This practice of storytelling and active story-listening provided so much useful context as to a person’s state on any given day or week, which helped us to work collaboratively and know when team members needed of additional support.

In my first week, I went through the process of sitting down with each of the 12 or so core team members and asking a bunch of questions about their life story. I had been hired to develop the communications strategy for a US$100,000 non-equity global crowdfunding campaign. To tell the collective story of Loomio, an organisation focused on facilitating authentic participation and with its roots in the Occupy movement, I felt like I needed to know the stories of the humans driving the company. It was helpful to know the backstory of team members who had been intricately involved in Occupy and their motivations for doing so, just as it was equally helpful to understand the story of others who had come from a more traditional business background who brought insights on how to drive transformational culture change from the inside. Many were core members and contributors to Enspiral, a network of freelancers, entrepreneurs and creatives in which a culture of collaborative story-making and emergence thrived.

In order to encourage and nurture a work environment where personal stories are welcome, the team culture needs to be one of openness and honesty. It needs to be a culture where it’s okay to make mistakes provided we learn from them, and where vulnerability is celebrated as a sign that there is indeed a human heart to the company. When we can be our authentic selves at work, we are happier, more productive, more open to collaboration across team and department barriers, and more willing to rally around a central purpose or collective story of the organisation.

Stories can act as a tool of liberation, sense making, or anchoring an organisation’s work to the the realities of human life.

For leaders who seek to cultivate a more inclusive, open, and authentic working environment, there is no better place to start than with yourself. If personal stories are important for general employees to bring into a work context, they are doubly important for leaders, who are often the ones who set the standard for an organisation’s culture. The stories that leaders tell can serve to inspire, entertain, persuade, inform, educate and create buy-in. They can also nurture a sense of permission, signalling that it’s okay for team members to be more authentic at work.

In her best-selling book “Dare to Lead” Brené Brown reveals that it is not fear that is the greatest barrier to courageous leadership — it is armour. It is the thoughts, actions, and behaviours that prevent us from being vulnerable and from telling our authentic stories at work lest we be seen as incompetent, unknowledgeable, flaky, or dare I say it, a real and flawed human being. When we put on our armour, we implicitly signal to others that we’re ready to do battle and that they had best put on their own. There is no room for empathy, no room for error. We are expected to behave almost as robotic beings who happened to be cloaked in flesh and blood, programmed to perform a certain task in a certain way, to follow instructions, and to never make mistakes.

The work of changing systems is difficult. It means going against the grain of what has become “the way things are” and challenging accepted norms. It means stepping out on a limb and trying things that may be untested. It means embracing models of change that may not show results for a number of years, long beyond the period afforded by most electoral cycles or funding terms. It means engaging with people who think differently from you, and in all likelihood spending some time talking past each other before you truly begin to understand where the other side is coming from. It takes patience, humility, dedication, the ability to potentially bear a lot of frustration, and the willingness to be wrong. In short, it means dropping your armour. Transformational change requires bold, courageous action and commitment from a number of stakeholders, and that can be scary.

But if we can’t bring our authentic stories to our working lives, how can we possibly embrace and hold the diverse multitude of stories that are involved in long-lasting, transformational, systems change?

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the story, feel free to clap — remember you can clap up to 50 times if you like it a lot. Most of my writing, I currently do for free. If you’d like to support my efforts in writing about storytelling for impact, narrative change, and systems change, you can do so through Patreon.

This article is adapted from the draft of the book I’m writing on storytelling, narrative, and systems change. For updates on the book, sign up to my newsletter.

Bringing Your Authentic Stories to Work was originally published in Enspiral Tales on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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