Narrative – a question of cultural identity
Doug Parkin, programme director, dives deeper into the idea of narrative leadership which is one of the four intelligences that make up the Connected Leadership model. This model articulates the core themes that underpin Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership, one of the Leadership Foundation’s most highly regarded executive programmes.
Being more efficient doesn’t sit well with who we are as an organisation.
There is a direct link between who we are and what we do. When it comes to teams and organisations it is impossible to separate ‘being’ from ‘doing’. And as the sadly comical line above shows, if we ask people to do something that does not fit with who they are, or perhaps more importantly how they see themselves, then there is likely to be either resistance or a loss of engagement. This is the root and essence of cultural identity.
The cultural web
There are a number of markers of cultural identity in organisations. A well-known model which captures these is the cultural web developed by Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes. This illustrates and prompts us to consider “the behavioural, physical and symbolic manifestations of a culture”. The six elements in this model, as shown below, “inform and are informed by the taken-for-granted assumptions, or paradigm, of an organisation”. This means that they are both deliberate and accidental, conscious and unconscious, planned and unplanned, formal and informal. A great deal of leadership energy, particularly at senior levels, goes into trying to shape and orchestrate the planned, formal and conscious side of culture, through mission statements, organisational values and things like service charters. There are also those very deliberate, corporate stories that organisations tell: stories of pride about the players and episodes that made the organisation great; and stories of intent about the next exciting chapter in the organisation’s future. But whilst focusing on the gloss (even veneer) of strategy and culture at this grand level, there are other things happening in the shadows, as important as they are unplanned, that may have a far greater impact on the organisation’s future direction and success. And even those with the very best understanding of an organisation’s culture will only ever have some of these factors in plain sight. Others will sit well below the surface of conscious attention.
In terms of their nature, some of these elements have a softer feel than others, such as symbols, routines and stories. However, stories actually pervade every aspect. There is a big difference, for example, between the lines of management drawn on an organisational chart and the stories told at water coolers regarding who holds the real influence. And it is the pervasiveness of stories that narrative leadership or narrative intelligence seeks to explore and understand. In many ways, narrative intelligence opens a window onto the shadow or ghost side of an organisation.
Exploring narrative is at once both a philosophical question and a practical one. Philosophical because linked to identity there is a strong suggestion that stories in important ways define both who we are and what it means to be who we are (our condition):
“A man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.” –Jean-Paul Sartre
As you might imagine, there have been arguments both for and against what has been termed narrativity. Practical because the stronger or more finely tuned our narrative intelligence, the better able we will be as leaders to work with the grain of the organisation in the initiatives or change projects we introduce. As Edgar Schein powerfully observed, “it will be easy to make changes that are congruent with present assumptions, and very difficult to make changes that are not”. Schein is the thinker, researcher and influential writer credited by some as having coined the term ‘corporate culture’.
Narrative captures and excites us. Think of that moment in a large lecture hall when the professor breaks from his notes and says, “let me tell you about a research project I worked on in Tanzania…” It is a hook which creates a sit-forward moment. A story is about to begin and we can’t resist it. Indeed, we do not want to resist it. We want to be drawn along the twists and turns, the highs and lows, the back and forth of the story, and we want to discover how the events unfold and the characters develop. We also want to turn to each other and nod at the meaning and significance we can together recognise and which in various ways unites us. This is a crucial part of both learning and identity.
There is also a comfort in stories. In the same way that communities and societies repeat, gradually adapt and pass down their stories, it is equally true that teams and organisations do the same. We can all think of examples of those often-repeated stories that in some strange way captured the essence of a team we once belonged to, and it is interesting to reflect on what the significant stories may be in our current teams/organisations.
Narrative and leadership
The reality of narrative is that it has a life of its own. It is not something leaders can fully control or influence. Indeed, sometimes when they try that becomes a story in itself. “Do you remember that time the last Dean told us a story about the faculty arriving at a crossroads in a storm,” people will say… Regarding culture more generally, it is important to realise that formal leadership is only one part of what shapes it and causes it to evolve. Another key message from Schein is that “culture is the result of a complex learning process that is only partially influenced by leadership behaviour”.
So, how do we approach narrative as leaders? How do we work with these ghosts and shadows? Do we approach it as a battleground, as a negotiated space, or as an ongoing, evolutionary process of group discovery? Whilst it may sometimes be the leader’s role to break and re-make organisational culture where it has become toxic or dysfunctional, to be the ghostbuster, the more likely reality is that the existing narratives need to grow, develop and continue as they engage with and partly shape new change initiatives. This, then, is an attentive, nurturing and supportive role. If change is put forward as an unbending imperative, driven from above or by external forces, then leaders may find themselves subsequently observing how powerfully narratives can erode such monoliths. Another image that has been used to describe this is “the iceberg that sinks organizational change” (Torben Rick, 2015).
Engaging with your organisation’s true stories – ghosts are worth listening to
To engage with the true stories of an organisation and really begin to appreciate both their subtlety and their emotional charge, leaders need to find opportunities to participate in the informal, shadow side of the organisation. This can’t be done from behind closed doors or through complex briefing papers. The shadow side exists in informal spaces, in everyday conversations and interactions, and is characterised by joint sensemaking and relationship building. Another way to describe it might, indeed, be the real-side of the organisation. Some leaders find this a very natural way of engaging with teams and colleagues, and for them the term ‘real’ would certainly resonate. For others, a more conscious effort may be required, at least initially. And although unstructured and often ambiguous, leaders should not be apprehensive of this shadow side and should be wary of regarding it as somehow sinister. Writing on this, William Tate interestingly suggests a balance of both disagreeable and valuable qualities, but with, perhaps, an apprehensive view overall:
“The organisation’s shadow side — the often disagreeable, messy, crazy and opaque aspects of your organisation’s personality. Such facets are not always dark and bad. Craziness and disorder, for example, may provide a creative spur, and grapevines can be a valuable source of information. But what these features have in common is that they are always slippery — easier to feel than to define.”
As Ebenezer Scrooge eventually learned, ghosts are worth listening to (A Christmas Carol), and as leaders in organisations we fail to listen to them at our peril. We remember, of course, that there are three ghosts in this story: The Ghost of Culture Past, the Ghost of Culture Present and the Ghost of Culture Yet to Come. And these spirits have three very different personalities, all of which are worth listening to if we wish to change ourselves, our environments and our organisations for the better:
CULTURE PAST: “These were shadows of things that have been. That they are what they are, do not blame me!”
CULTURE PRESENT: “I see a vacant seat by the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner…carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the future, the child will die.”
CULTURE YET TO COME (SCROOGE SPEAKING): “Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”
Doug Parkin the programme director for the Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme at the Leadership Foundation. He also runs a number of bespoke and core programmes, in addition to international projects.
The next Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership takes place in Greater London in November.
Application Deadline: 10 November
Module 1: Wednesday 22 – Thursday 23 November
Module 2: Tuesday 30 – Wednesday 31 January
Location: Greater London