What Story Are You Telling? (Or, the Tyranny of Failing Narratives)

By Amelia Gandomi Lewis and Kevin LaHaise

Ed. Note: Amelia and Kevin have been working together as coach and client for just over a decade. We were delighted that they agreed to co-author a post together on a topic and technique that they have found to consistently produce breakthroughs.

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Amelia Gandomi Lewis is a speaker, coach, and facilitator who helps leaders own their executive presence in order to motivate and inspire their teams to greatness. Kevin LaHaise is a Vice President of Marketing at JDI.

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We all tell ourselves stories. Sometimes we do it consciously, sometimes unconsciously. But most people struggle to recognize the stories they tell themselves, even when they’re acting upon them.

As leaders, we choose whether to share these stories in their original form, or whether to alter them before passing them along to our teams. The story we choose to tell has more impact on culture and performance than you might think.

The science of storytelling is quite clear on one matter: it’s an extraordinarily powerful tool that has universal effects in the human brain across languages, cultures and socioeconomic groups.

Yet most of us have never been taught how to craft stories. Fewer of us have learned how to recognize when we’re unconsciously writing stories that hurt ourselves, or even the people we care about.

In fact, every leader has, at least once, haphazardly constructed a narrative that materially harmed their business or weakened the performance of their people.

Consider the wave of business owners who have taken to the media to bemoan the current labor shortage. What story are they telling?

Many of us have seen the signs on the doors of small businesses asking for patience because “people don’t want to work” and “we’re short staffed.”

Set aside the nuanced economic explanations for the current labor shortage for a moment. What impact might this “nobody wants to work” narrative have on a small business? Will it help these businesses attract new employees? Will it bolster the morale of existing staff taking on more work than they’re paid for? Will it reassure customers that they’re going to get their money’s worth?

What story could these leaders tell us that might help solve this very real, even existential, business problem? Because “nobody wants to work” certainly isn’t going to do that.

Despite its conspicuous absence in leadership training curricula, various techniques from the original concept of narrative therapy have made their way into common practice in the mental health world. Those techniques are also at the core of a productive executive coaching engagement.

The stories that leaders tell are often rough drafts, or decaying old narratives, relics of a prior reality that were never rewritten for the current reality. The problem is the same in either case: they haven’t gone through a deliberate “writing” process, largely because storytelling is such a natural, even impulsive human behavior.

Think back to early April of 2020 when lockdowns set in across the globe. Were you telling yourself everything was going to be fine? Did you tell yourself your business was under imminent threat? Was your first narrative ultimately accurate, or even helpful?

Most of us hastily constructed a narrative to help us cope with the pandemic and its most immediate effects on our work and personal lives. Then many of us locked ourselves in that narrative, for a year or longer. A select few of us edited the first draft of that narrative to better serve our people and our business realities. But we were all coping and grieving the whole time, and those early narratives stuck around.

On a long enough timeline, every narrative becomes a failing narrative. We need to rewrite the story as the world around us changes. Today, most people are trying, if unconsciously, to write a new narrative. But first, we need to get good at identifying a failing narrative.

The good news is they’re easy to spot, and they’re even easier to spot with the help of a coach. Look for the gaps between the story the leader is telling and the actions that people are taking in the business. Many leaders voice concern about a disconnect between what they tell their people, and what their people ultimately do.

Even the most empathetic leader will often have a first instinct to question the competence of the people, rather than the effectiveness of their communication. More often than not, their narrative had unintended consequences. But to acknowledge that is to acknowledge that they failed. The role of the coach is to neutralize fear and shame so that the client can more objectively assess the root cause of the disconnect.

When you spot the disconnect, it’s time to start the editing process.

Coaches are the co-editors of your most strategic and consequential leadership narratives. They help you to edit the story you tell about yourself, and they help you rewrite the failing narratives that you tell your people.

More importantly, skilled coaches will lead with curiosity and non-judgement, even if you’ve just been on a judgemental rant lambasting everyone and everything, openly doubting if any change in yourself or your organization is possible. While the organization has hired a coach for the goal of developing and investing in a leader, a coach must hold space for any and all emotions of the journey in service of the ultimate goal — the self-actualization a leader endures to become the next evolution of themselves. The evolution of the narrative is an outcome of that internal transformation.

A coach can’t edit the story for you, but they can challenge it, test it, and interrogate it with you.

You are the ultimate authority of your own story and the intent of the coach is key to supporting this truth. If a coach can enact a simple, yet profound dialogue around the old story, it can often lead to immediate breakthrough insights completely owned by the client.

We typically start with five simple questions, inspired by the research and writing of Brene Brown:

  1. What are the facts of this story?
  2. What are the assumptions?
  3. What is your role in the story? What do you own? What part did you play in how this story came to be?
  4. What is the meaning that you make of this story? What does it mean to you?
  5. How does this story make you feel?

Why these questions? Because they vet for truth, highlight potentially dangerous leaps in logic, and shine a light on the (often emotional) motive for writing the story in the first place. As Brown would say, these questions force you to engage with the emotions that are shaping the story.

Then, you can “re-author” your story and test it in various environments. A coach will ask you to take a step towards application of your new narrative, although you have to own the action. Most importantly, if you don’t take action, it usually means you don’t own the new narrative, something in the story hasn’t settled yet. A coach can facilitate an inspired reflection about action or in action while keeping your role as the ultimate protagonist.

So is it really worth it to spend all this time editing your narratives?

The first drafts of our stories are often written as coping strategies for the author. They serve the emotional needs of one individual, and if the narrative gets away from them, it will often come at the expense of their team’s performance and wellbeing.

Sometimes these problematic narratives are the products of cognitive distortion — a phenomenon that nobody is immune to, where our brains engage in a pattern of thinking that is false, but repeatedly reinforced, often causing psychological damage. Here’s how it most often manifests in the workplace. Consider the impact on people and organizations:

  • All or nothing thinking: “Either I am a success or failure. My team will hit the mark or we will have failed.” Leaders will push themselves and their people to the brink of exhaustion to make sure they don’t fail.
  • Catastrophizing: “I believe the worst possible outcome will happen. My team needs to be as fearful as I am.” When leaders catastrophize, even if their teams are successful, they don’t feel like they succeeded, and they never feel celebratory.
  • Emotional reasoning: I feel something therefore it must be true. My team is forced to respond to my in-the-moment emotions, which could also change tomorrow. In this scenario, teams never quite know the temperature of the environment as their leader changes day to day.
  • Mind reading: I know what they are thinking. I will take action on those assumptions without asking them any questions.” This results in an all-to-familiar phenomenon at work: we have unspoken tension, resentment or disagreements because essential dialogue never happened.

Most coaches can help clients see how failing narratives lead to these damaging cultural outcomes. But the upside of narrative work is what really makes this practice worth it. Well-crafted stories can transform cultures, empower people, and drive company performance to new heights.

Start right now, in this moment, with who you are and what you have. What is your current story? Your real story, not your stump speech. If you don’t know it, ask someone you trust to tell you what they think your story is. Does it resonate? Do you like what you hear?

If you feel resistance when you ask yourself these questions, or a desire to dismiss the exercise altogether, perhaps it’s time to work with a coach on your narrative.

If stories shape our sense of reality, wouldn’t investing in your own make sense? Surely we can all agree that a constructive, honest and meaningful reality is good for culture and good for business.

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