Story

The Power of Stories During Times of Change

Posted on Posted in Change Management, Communication, Leadership, Project Management
By Erik Van Slyke, Managing Director, www.erikvanslyke.com

One of the basic principles of most change leaders is that we can use rational discourse to influence the motivations and desires of people.    Present employees with a sound, logical line of reasoning and they will develop a broader understanding of a situation and make both the technical and behavioral changes required.  This thought is founded upon one of the most basic assumptions of science:  We can have objective knowledge of the world and everything that's in it.

According to the latest research in neuroscience, however, such knowledge is impossible.  The only world we can know is the one produced by the firing of our neurons, and it is purely subjective.  Once we receive information from our senses, it is assembled, edited, and assigned significance according to emotions encoded in our memories.  As a result, we don't take in our experience of the world as much as we create it.  We can know only our emotional, subjective version of the world around us.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, there is evidence to suggest that our emotions, the emotions encoded in memories, actually help us make better decisions.  The work of neurologist Antonio Damasio and others has shown that the more we attempt to strip out feelings and create an objective decision-making process, the more we lose access to what we have learned from past experience.

Unfortunately, this means that the ideal of decision making in the corporate world that encourages analytical objectivity virtually ensures the loss of what’s been learned through experience.  Our drive for objective thinking prevents us from acknowledging that emotions are an integral, if not essential, part of our interactions and decision-making.

So, we go about our daily corporate life, constructing our subjective reality and denying to ourselves and those around us that we are subjective.  And since everyone else also is operating under their own personal version of “objective” reality, conflicts occur.  Each individual sees reality differently.  Since conflict is emotional, we deny that, too.  Then we try even harder to be objective, we further deny our emotions and the emotions of others, and surprise, we get deeper into conflict.

This brings me to what this means for change management and the reason I posted the above video.

There is no better way to tap the subjective, mental world of emotional associations than by using stories.

Changing business is about changing people, whether we are changing strategy, work process or technologies.  It therefore makes sense for us to supplement our logic with a mode of thinking that accounts for what is unique to human beings.  When we do our actions will lead to much better results.

We can use stories both to understand others as well as to shape how others think and behave.  As former Duke Energy CEO, James Rogers, suggests, stories help people understand more than the logical, business reasons for a change of direction.  They help people connect with the message, and “feel it, sense it . . . almost taste it.”

As change managers, hearing the stories of others is a powerful way of helping overcome resistance.  Listening to stories helps us understand both the logic and the emotion behind the decision making.  Stories become a framework to analyze the business context and a tool to help us go beyond the numbers to the reasons for the numbers.  They provide a deeper appreciation for the forces at work and how we need to address them.

Once we understand the stories people are telling themselves, we will know how to tell stories that will help them understand the change.  This understanding helps us incorporate the emotions of others into the way we shape the change process.  Stories help us empathize and inspire.  They help us go beyond logic to connect with human emotion as a powerful force for change.