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:
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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