We are all great storytellers. Every day, we have Academy Award worthy scripts running through our heads. Our stories are complete with villains and victims, scandals and injustices and even a little bit of mystery and intrigue. We have an insatiable hunger for a good internal story. We grasp at even the tiniest of things to feed that desire. A simple email, a casual conversation or just a passing glance is sometimes all it takes to start a feeding frenzy and we are off and running, a new story churning away in our heads. Our stories are remarkable examples of our innate creative ability. Sadly, however, we don’t recognize them as fictionalized creations of our creative minds. Rather, we tend to view them as true, solid and real, and it is that belief that’s so damaging.
We have an insatiable hunger for a good internal story. We grasp at even the tiniest of things to feed that desire.
Sam’s boss, Connie stops by his office, peeks in and asks him how it’s going with the ACME account. Sam offers a succinct update and Connie moves on. As she continues down the hall heading to her office, she tells herself a story. In it, she is a great boss, one that cares about her team. She shows them so by checking in to see how they are doing, thereby opening the door for them to seek her advice as needed. Meanwhile, back in Sam’s office, he too is telling himself a story. His story features the villain Connie. A boss who obviously doesn’t trust her team enough to close a piece of business on their own. Someone who feels the need to insert herself into the process and micromanage. Two vastly different stories, both sprouting from the same seed. Perception is reality and our perception is filtered through our own stories.
When teams begin to fail and organizations struggle, more times than not, the cause of it is a breakdown in communication, not a flaw in product, service, or process. And, when you look under the hood of that communication breakdown, it is inevitably driven by the stories we are telling ourselves. Our stories erode trust, cause misalignment and diminish productivity. When allowed to fester and grow, they can topple an entire company.
And, when you look under the hood of that communication breakdown, it is inevitably driven by the stories we are telling ourselves.
The cure is simple, hang up a lot of mirrors. In other words, we need to create mechanisms that allow us to see our own stories for what they are, fiction not fact, fantasy not reality. In its most simple form, this mirror is a question. Using the example from above, Connie could have ended her conversation with Sam by asking “Hey, how’s what I just said, sitting with you?” Or, Sam could have responded by saying “Here’s what I am hearing, is that what you intended?”. Either of these would cause pause and provide the needed information to change the direction of the story about to be told.
We need to create mechanisms that allow us to see our own stories for what they are, fiction not fact, fantasy not reality.
The second form of mirror is our own natural curiosity. When you start a good story, try to catch yourself and investigate. Do I have enough facts to make this story real or, am I creating my own reality? Do I know that this is true, or am I just making it so? If you bring enough awareness to catch yourself even one out of ten times, it is a good start and you will save yourself a lot of unnecessary angst.
When stories have been left to build too long and distrust and dysfunction have begun to creep into the team, it’s time to reach out for help. Help in the form ofa mirror of facilitation. It is best to bring in a non-stakeholder, a neutral third-party in order to facilitate a conversation. I lead these discussions frequently and find that when I bring a team together and start asking reflective questions, we soon are whisked away into a grown-up version of story time. Commonly, these sessions include a bit of laughter and slight embarrassment as the participants begin to see the silliness of their stories and the implausibility of their plot lines. It may take time to undo the damage done, but these sessions serve as an important reset button that allows the healing to begin.
Commonly, these sessions include a bit of laughter and slight embarrassment as the participants begin to see the silliness of their stories and the implausibility of their plot lines.
Enjoy your stories and go hang out in your head. It can be far more entertaining than what’s on TV. But, recognize those stories for what they are; fictional creations of our own amazing brains. As a leader, it is your job to make sure those stories don’t get believed as truths, and if they do, you’d better start hanging some mirrors.
In the comment section below, please share one of your favorite stories that you tell yourself. I think we can have a lot of fun seeing those stories surface. If you are interested in how I facilitate a “grown-up story time” I am happy to share. Just click here and we can set a time to chat.