Since the dawn of evolution, humans have communicated stories on cave walls, at the camp fire, through song, literature, film and advertising. With the instantaneous nature of media today and the resulting distracted viewer, the ability for brands to tell captivating stories is of paramount importance.

Slowly but surely, the power of storytelling in marketing has cascaded into the employee experience as businesses use storytelling to illustrate their purpose, demonstrate values in action, share successes, encourage the best talent through the door and motivate staff to be ‘the next positive story.’

Storytelling is also crucial to the success of adapting to organisational change such as digital transformations. Sharing stories from the transitional journey showcases the process, keeps lines of communication open, supports emerging change ambassadors and maintains motivation in uncertainty.  

While there are many powerful reasons to tell stories, there are shadow sides to storytelling:

What happens if we only tell one side of the story? 

When organisations only tell stories of success, what happens to the other stories? The one’s that don’t meet the criteria of prosperity, match up to organisational values or demonstrate ideal behaviours? Typically, those stories get swept under the carpet along with examples of poor performance, rewarded mediocrity and stifled creativity. These stories are the ones sent to HR or brooded over at the water cooler.  Overtime, they breed toxicity.

Likewise if we’re not telling the whole story including the mistakes and learnings that led to success, how can we expect employees to be courageous, take risks and innovate. Stories can act as role-models, but only if they are authentic.

What happens when we try to mimic other people’s success stories expecting to achieve the same outcomes?

For example, during digital transformations, we get asked to share best-in-class success stories from other similar organisations. Before they buy into the change, people need to know how and why it’s worked elsewhere. Not only does this buy confidence, it’s easier to be the follower than the trailblazer.

Nevertheless, a successful transformation in one organisation will be completely different to another because the people, culture and frameworks are different. We can look to success stories for inspiration, but pure mimicry is dangerous.  


People create false stories.

Our protective imagination creates false narratives for decisions we make, or events that happen to us. For example, the business owner who decides to sack a poor performer, might tell themselves that part of being a manager is making difficult decisions. But a difficult decision would be having uncomfortable conversations and investing time in supporting and developing the employee.

Likewise, during an innovation project, every team member will tell a believable story as to why their idea is better, why they are dismissing another colleague’s idea or why other ideas will fail.

Even with a robust selection process, human biases can sway outcomes. We tell stories to protect our egos, self-esteem and identity, but without critical awareness, these stories can derail the innovation process. It takes a high level of emotional intelligence, vulnerability and courage to be honest about the stories we’re inventing.

Where is the space for learning?

If we don’t tell the truth in our stories, or to ourselves, how do we ever learn from our mistakes or take on feedback to develop as professionals or as people? 

Watch Suzanne Duncan’s TED Talk – The dark side of storytelling.

Inquisitive storytelling is the answer to all of these storytelling shadows.

Inquisitive storytelling requires a heavy dose of ‘whys?’ Asking ‘why?’ forces us to be accountable and present our mistakes, dig deeply into the reasons, seek various viewpoints and analyse the results. It also asks us to remove our biases and focus on facts. By doing so, we can drill down to the real problem to be solved, identify what we can learn from the story and when our egos have influenced outcomes.

A culture of asking ‘Why?’ promotes transparency and honesty from the boardroom to the frontline. It encourages us to challenge our stories and engage in practices of self-awareness, recognising the patterns in our behavior for the greater good.

The adage of, ‘Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story’ is challenged head-on with this approach. Instead we must encourage all stories to be told to increase authenticity, reveal important insights and opportunities for growth.

Let’s start telling the whole story – the good, the bad and the ego driven.

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