Organisations today are well and truly switched on to the power of storytelling. Most leaders are now upskilled in the art of using it effectively to spark action, communicate values and engage employees with a future vision (Denning 2006). However, when it comes to culture change the stories your leaders tell are just the beginning.
Stories get told and retold in organisations all the time. They morph and create waves that ripple through different groups of employees subtly shifting their behaviours, attitudes and beliefs. A leader may therefore deliver a story well, with one intention, but ultimately it is how the story is retold and interpreted by employees that really has the impact on culture.
In the world of research this grapevine retelling in organisations is known as ‘narrative repetition’ and has been studied by linguistics for many years (Boje, 1991; Marsh 2007; Whelan et al., 2010; Gabriel, 2000). Most recently, researchers have explored the functions of narrative repetition in organisations and identified how, at its core, understanding the ripple effect of storytelling comes down to being aware of three key dualities: control/ resistance, differentiation/ integration and stability/change (Dailey & Browning, 2014).
Organisations can use retelling to reinforce certain behaviours, effectively carrying a ‘lesson learned’ message and nudging employees to act a certain way. In particular, such messages are extremely powerful in industries where a safety culture is a must. Early ethnographies, for example, carried out in surgical settings describe how the same horror stories crop up again and again in different hospitals (Bosk, 1979), reinforcing ‘real-life’ lessons of what happens when procedures slip.
In other industries, stories can reverberate which aim to encourage different behaviours (risk taking, resilience, speaking up, respect …the list goes on). But, no matter what the specific aim, when the function is control, ripples of resistance inevitably follow (Kassing, 2002). This resistance repetition can either be open and blatant or more subtly done through cynicism, irony or ridicule (Dailey & Browning, 2014).
Key message - most organisations have control and resistance stories circulating through them all the time (Kassing, 2002), some intentionally started by leaders others prompted by employees. For successful culture change, tune into what these stories are in and what effect they are having on employee attitudes and behaviours.
Narrative repetition is also commonly used to construct both individual and organisational identities. More precisely, they can help to establish a sense of uniqueness, answering for employee’s the fundamental questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who are we?’
Various studies have shown how stories that are retold in organisations often highlight a particular unique strategy, approach, ethos, employee or leader. In relation to culture change, this retelling around distinction is key. It tells employees what the organisation stands for. But, more than this, it simultaneously bonds members of the organisation closer together. In other words, ‘they’ stories automatically create ‘we’ stories.
Key message - it’s important to appreciate how narrative repetitions can be mutually enabling to your culture change programme, clarifying for employees what it is they are part of while at the same time enhancing a feeling that they are part of one unit.
Retelling stories can be used as a way of maintaining consistency, helping to reaffirm beliefs and values or anchor an organisation in its heritage (Dailey & Browning, 2014).
This use of retelling for stability is an essential part of culture change as it places the organisation in a narrative of its own, providing employees with a tale that is easily understood, connected with and passed on.
On the flip side, narrative retelling can simultaneously be used to create change, not only anchoring an organisation in its past roots but rallying employees towards a new future. Furthermore, narrative repetition is not only helpful for inspiring change but can embed the change through shared learning.
Key message - successful culture change projects meaningfully integrate an organisation’s past, current and future. Used in the right way, narrative retelling can be a powerful addition to this, anchoring an organisation in its heritage and embedding future changes.
Storytelling is not just a one off event done by one person at one point in time it is part of the continuously shifting fabric that makes up an organisation’s culture. When changing your culture consider, therefore, not just the stories your leaders tell but the stories your employees are and will be retelling.
Denning, S. (2006). Effective storytelling: strategic business narrative techniques. Strategy & Leadership, 34, 42-48.
Boje, D. M. (1991). The storytelling organization: A study of story performance in an office-supply firm. Administrative Science Quarterly,36, 106–126.
Marsh, E. J. 2007. Retelling is not the same as recalling: Implications for memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 16–20.
Whelan, K. K., Huber, J., Rose, C., Davies, A., & Clandinin, J. (2010). Telling and retelling our stories on the professional knowledge landscape. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 7, 143–156.
Gabriel, Y. (2000). Storytelling in organizations: Facts, fictions, and fantasies.New York: Oxford University Press.
Dailey, S. L., & Browning, L. (2014). Retelling stories in organizations: Understanding the functions of narrative repetition. Academy of Management Review, 39, 22-43.
Kassing, J. W. 2002. Speaking up: Identifying employees’ upward dissent strategies. Management Communications Quarterly, 16, 187–209.