Be honest, don’t deceive yourself

October 2, 2008

I have had a long term concern, which if anything has strengthened over time, over some of the ethical issues in organisational story telling. There seems to be an increasing attempt to sell Executives on story telling as a panacea for all of their communication and motivational problems. Simplistic books with formulaic recipes abound. Ok there is some serious stuff around, but there is an awful amount of snake oil. The point at which I get really worried is then people argue that there are no ethical issues with story telling, that is inherently good and wholesome. In contrast, if someone acknowledges the problem and talks about what they do to avoid it, or mitigate any negative impact then I accord them greater respect. When they get terribly defensive or succumb to ad hominem arguments rather than tackle the real issue I get even more worried. As some readers will know I had a recent exchange with Steve Denning on the World Wide Story Ning on just this issue. The exchange was private to the group so I can’t publish it. However I do intend to talk about the question of ethics associated with narrative work in general later this month at the ActKM conference in Canberra.

I was reminded of this today when my Technorati search popped up this blog. It references an article in The Age about the story telling work of Gabrielle Dolan. I had originally expressed considerable concern about the approach portrayed in that article in a fairly direct posting, although I did qualify it with the hope that my interpretation was wrong. Gabrielle and I exchanged emails afterwards and I accepted her assurance that my interpretation of the article did not match her intent. However I will admit to a partial recurrence of my worry and also some mild irritation at her response when challenged by Kathy Hanson about the incident. She says: Dave made that comment not knowing what we really do, and we did clear the air privately. Dave’s concern, and why he used the word manipulation, was that business leaders already have enough power, so they should not also be given the power of storytelling. This comment is based on the assumption that all business leaders are evil, which is of course not the case. Now I have a few responses to that:

  • My comment was not based on the assumption that all business leaders are evil. That is a complete nonsense and smacks of trying to avoid the issue or dismiss a potential criticism without taking it seriously. In experience business leaders are not evil, they generally have good intentions, are often forced to do things they don’t like by external pressure and have to handle a complex set of compromises between what they would like to be the case, and the reality they have to manage.
  • Good people often do bad things for the best of all possible reasons. The more they are aware of that fact the less likely they are to do the wrong thing. If you claim that teaching leaders to tell stories will improve their ability to communicate and increase the change that will achieve their desired results then you are de-facto teaching them to manipulate the way that people think and intend to act. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; in our day to day existence we constantly attempt to manipulate the people around us and what they do. I admit to shameless attempting to manipulate my children towards suitable friends and a university education and I have yet to meet a parent who didn’t do the same, although I have met a few you tried to pretend that they didn’t.
  • By acknowledging that story-telling (other than the around the camp fire stuff) is manipulative you force people to at least talk about the ethical issues involved. My trying to claim that story-telling is somehow or other inherently ethical and non-manipulative you deceive both yourself and your client. Using real language, avoiding euphemisms and platitudes is key. Don’t talk about collateral damage, talk about killing innocent people. It may have been justified, but don’t disguise it.
  • I am also very dubious about people who claim they can teach executives to tell stories in any time shorter than a year or so. Now you can create social processes that allow natural stories to emerge in group interaction (some of our work takes that approach), but you can’t communicate the skills of a traditional story teller, a script writer or a journalist in a couple of days of training and a bit of coaching. You certinaly can’t (if you know anything at all about narrative) create a template which says tell this sort of story and you will achieve this sort of effect. It just doesn’t work like that. The context in which the story is told, the history of the story teller and its specific context can produce radically different effects. The meaning of a story emerges in the interaction between story teller and audience and is unique each time.<

Now as many readers will know I think story telling is the weakest, least effective and most dangerous form of narrative work. Gathering anecdotal material, allowing people to self-interpret their own stories, sensing or seeing patterns is more valuable. But if you are going to teach story-telling, or claim to be a story-telling consultancy then honesty is the best policy. Realise that you are teaching a manipulative technique, agree the grounds rules, discuss the ethics with your client. Don’t try and run away from language which can be interpreted negatively, it is your friend. Camouflage the capability behind nice sounding words and you are far more likely to fall into error, and fast.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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