The ‘tale’ tells

May 21, 2018

You barely had a toilet in office (Grindlays Bank in the 1980s) for women on the same floor; a loo on the fourth floor was all that you had, to which you would have to shuffle up,” says Naina Lal Kidwai. Calling it the ‘loo quotient’, she adds, “You can determine how important women are in an organization going by where the loo is, its size, and quality. When I joined Grindlays, we didn’t have a toilet on every floor. But now things have changed.”

Do the above lines tell us about the plight and challenges faced by working women? Although it may be a minor aspect for an organization, it has tremendous potential for generating stories around the significance of women at workplaces. The in-betweenness in Kidwai’s is pregnant with tremendous scope for interpretation.

At face value, the concept of ‘storytelling’ in organizations may appear to be a simple concept. May be it is the very same thing which each one of us at some point of time in life got introduced to, while we were growing up—stories told to us over the dining table by our parents, or by our grandma, or by an aunt who visited us once a month. Apart from these direct stories, we became passive and indirect listeners when the family would discuss experiences, for instance, a distant relative’s marriage.

The talking points were targeted directly or indirectly, consciously or subconsciously at us so that we come to know the dos and don’ts of our family, values, and rituals we will have to hold tightly to, if we did not want to get disowned. These talking points were mostly about certain episodes, which had the gravitas to attract the attention of the family members, some things which just could not be ignored and which our people realized, needed to be ingrained in us.

If it is so simple, then why do organizations not bank on it big time? Just tell some great stories and enjoy the fruits of having a motivated workforce. But you will agree that motivating the workforce is as simple as moving mountains (pun intended). Telling stories is one thing. However, being able to create and co-create an environment where people talk about good practices (small and big) of the organization—which in turn builds strengthens it, is another. That is going beyond ‘talking’, it is also about the ‘doing’ component. Creating and co-creating is what we will discuss in the second half of the article. Let me first tell a few stories.

ceo’s gesture

“You are nominated for the annual training program in the next month,” Sachin told Veer who had joined the operations team last year. “Oh! what a great news!” Sachin had joined as an assistant HR just a couple of days back. His past experience with announcing of such news in his prior organization was very different. Whenever he told someone that he/she was deputed for a training program they either complained, hesitated, voiced their disinterest, or showed discomfort. But today, to whichever participant he told about the program, he/she seemed to be happy and looking forward. Unable to control his curiosity, he finally asked his boss Ashutosh, the reason behind such an overwhelmingly positive reaction. “It is because our training programs are not like other such programs. Here, we invite one family member each of the trainees, preferably their partner, on the concluding day. They join us for dinner but that is not only thing. The CEO personally interacts with these guests and thanks them for their support and patience. They also participate in the day-long meeting along with their partners. They are made to understand the role their family member occupies in the organization, how important it is, and how it contributes. Over dinner one cannot fail to notice the sense of pride and happiness in the eyes of the employees as well as their spouses. The new incumbents get to know the stories from their seniors and thus feel privileged when they get nominated.”

The ‘positive response’ from most of the employees on getting nominated for training prompted Sachin to know the reason behind it. Creating willingness among employees to upgrade and up skill in this way was doing good to the organization. Any new employee on knowing about this practice would begin to wonder, when will my turn come?

volunteering for safety

Our students were taken for a live project to an organization in the engineering procurement and construction sector. That organization also seemed to have leveraged the advantages of story-telling effectively. Before getting onto the live project, the students were taken around the plant by a middle-level manager. On coming back, when I asked them, “What did you like the most about what you saw?” They remarked almost at once, “The way the organization ensures safety measures.” The manager who took them around started from a point where his wife and daughter’s picture were pasted on a big hoarding with a caption: please come home safely, we are waiting for you. Students said, while he showed the poster, his voice choked. There were many hoardings across the plant with pictures of the members of the family of employees. What a powerful initiative towards workplace safety. If I say it linked the objective of the organization with that the individual’s (a rare feat) almost effortlessly, will it be an exaggeration?

gifting happiness on birthdays

Celebrating birthdays is not an innovative practice anymore in organizations, but wherever and whenever it is done, it does not fail to kindle positive energy and some degree of belongingness, at once. This positive energy is contagious. For employees at bottom level, it almost does some terrific magic. For, getting recognized, does mean a lot to most. At that level, it matters far more. If this is the response from the bottom level, imagine the organization-wide implications.

what does story telling do to an organization?

“Stories open valuable windows into the emotional, political, and symbolic lives of organizations, offering researchers a powerful instrument carrying out research,” and let us “gain access to deeper organizational realities, closely linked to their members’ experiences” (Gabriel,2004,p.2).

As proposed by Barbara Czarniawska, (1977) a narrative (also used as a synonym with some modification for story) has entered the organizational domain in at least three forms:

  • the first is that of people telling stories within organizations
  • the second is that of seeing organizational life and organizational phenomena as a form of narrative
  • the third is that of organizational research as a form of narrative itself.

The first two are happening almost everywhere; the third if handled by professionals, has the potential to diagnose an organization with a some good precision.

If we seriously want to study organizations, then we need to do away with armchair speculation first. We need to travel through the minds of the organizational members, and in the process, gather insight into what made them speak/ignore/consider/happy/not so happy? What affected them in the past? What is affecting them now at what level? ‘Narrative inquiry’ may come handy, the more candid the better. Can we do it? Do we have the bandwidth to listen? Listen extensively? One of my school teachers always repeated at least twice before every exam, “Do not write your answers in haste, read the questions and understand them well. Wrong answers, however, well written never fetch marks.” We always felt what a commonsensical statement she makes, but later in life we realized how important that lesson was.

As organizational members, it is we who create the organizational fabric. Are we creating scope for stories which will speak of the rich fabric of the firm’s character? Can we start with creating an environment which has sufficient amount of openness, confrontation, trust, authenticity, pro-action, autonomy, collaboration, and experimentation? We need to begin with values and then build actions around them. After all, creating a ‘syuzhet’ (plot of the narrative in Russian), which is in sync with the organizational goal, should be one of the topmost priorities of any manager at any level.

Moral of the story, the tale tells, smart managers choose to listen!




Anna Linda Musacchio Adorisio (2009)Storytelling in Organizations,Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN-13: 978-0-230-23068-2 Stories_in_organizational_research._In_C._Cassell_and_G._Symon_Eds._Es­sential_guide_to_qualitative_methods_in_organizational_research_114-126._ London_Sage\


Udai Pareek, Training Instruments in HRD, McGraw Hill Education.