Leading Change: Argument + Story

How do leaders in organizations lead people to new behaviors? How do they convince people to change?

If we were bees working in a hive to make honey, leading teams would be far simpler. A dance around the hive, a wiggle here, a waggle there, and we would motivate workers to go get the food source and “Show me the honey!”

There are two distinctive modes of thought that our brains use to construct reality:

  1. Abstract thinking – a well-formed argument
  2. Narrative thinking – a good story

These two can be used to convince make a decision, and they are both necessary in order to lead people to change. A good argument convinces us of truth. A good story shows us specifics of how the proposed change plays out in real life.

We have to be able to imagine ourselves in the story, creating a new story with ourselves acting out the suggested changes. And as well, we have to know the facts and believe in the rational argument.

Clearly stories have been largely responsible for the great religions of the world, and also how wars are launched. If you want to make changes in your company, you’ve got to tell a good story and one that rings true.

Narrative is crucial to the way we make changes. It’s as if we can’t decide until we can clearly see ourselves inside a story, living in a constructed reality of our choosing.

In 1997 Noel Tichy, Professor of Management & Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, said, “Business leaders need a teachable point of view – a set of ideas about success in the marketplace and a set of values based on personal and organizational success.” The best way to communicate that point of view is through a story.

Organizations have been slow to adopt narrative because of their strong orientation for reasoning and facts. Yet it is becoming evident that a large part of leading is done through storytelling. Narrative intelligence is clearly a leadership quality.

Storytelling is still a mystery, because sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Some stories spark action, and cause people to change their minds and behaviors, but what is it that makes it work?

Psychologists tell us that the underlying mechanism is a mental process called transportation. When readers or listeners are engaged in a story, they are virtually transported by the storyteller into a different world. They give up their groundedness in the here-and-now in favor of a new existence elsewhere in the story.

When the story is over, we return as changed persons. We are changed as a result of the mental experiences we have had on our journey. We are not the same.

Remember, I mentioned in an earlier post that we learn in three ways? Experiences, observation and symbolic learning? When you are immersed in a story, you are observing and learning symbolically.

As a result of being transported by a story, you return to reality with a different attitude and so may act differently in the future.

I’m sharing these ideas with you here, from Stephen Denning’s book, The Secret Language of Leadership, because it’s important to understand how stories work. It is my hope that by sharing these ideas we will both learn to be better storytellers, in leading the people we serve.

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