Telling Tales at Work: The Low-Down on Gossip Though Typically Overlooked, Marginalised and Erased from the Official Record, Tales Told in the Workplaced Can Help Build a Productive Workplace Environment. Recent Research Shows That a Story Can Serve a Variety of Work-Related Purposes

By Holmes, Janet | New Zealand Management, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Telling Tales at Work: The Low-Down on Gossip Though Typically Overlooked, Marginalised and Erased from the Official Record, Tales Told in the Workplaced Can Help Build a Productive Workplace Environment. Recent Research Shows That a Story Can Serve a Variety of Work-Related Purposes


Holmes, Janet, New Zealand Management


In the familiar array of team-building techniques known to most managers --the Monday morning sports conversations, the recognition of anniversaries of appointments - there should also be room for workplace stories.

Peg: Smithy disgraced himself on the weekend.

X: Yeah, he told me about it.

Tess: Yes, what's this story about your, um, stag party?

All: [Laughter]

Peg: Now you've upset him, Tessa.

Clara: How are you feeling now, Smithy?

Smithy: I'm feeling a bit sore still but I'm fine.

Effective communication is a key skill in business. But some people might consider the kind of gossip in the above exchange to be inappropriate talk in a business environment. Telling stories is not generally considered an aspect of communication that contributes to getting things done at work.

Research carried out by the Wellington Language in the Workplace Project (LWP), however, indicates that storytelling can serve a range of useful functions.

Stories about domestic events and exciting escapades are often told and retold as part of ongoing social talk within an organisation; they become part of the shared repertoire of work teams. Previous research has also highlighted the use of stories in the creation of "organisational myths". These stories provide the 'official' view of how an organisation began and developed, and they help to establish organisational and cultural values. It is often through such myths that the leaders in an organisation come to be perceived as heroes or stars, and others get to be familiar with the norms of management culture.

However, research into this kind of workplace storytelling has typically been based on data obtained through interviews at second hand. The Wellington Language in the Workplace Project provides a different kind of data which offers a fresh perspective on storytelling.

The everyday workplace interactions recorded by LWP include the actual stories that people tell at work in the course of their jobs, and the analysis identifies sometimes surprising work-related functions that these stories serve.

In order to investigate the different ways that language is used in the workplace more than 500 participants tape-recorded their everyday interactions at work in a variety of New Zealand workplace settings, including government departments, commercial white- collar organisations, small businesses, and blue-collar factory environments.

The recordings demonstrate that alongside business talk, one important kind of social talk that occurs in the workplace is telling stories. Such stories may seem mundane and unimportant, even to the participants. The humorous anecdotes of a colleague may be overlooked as a dispensable and unnecessary digression from business-related talk which serves no greater purpose than to provide entertainment and amusement for others. In fact, the LWP research shows that storytelling can facilitate business productivity in a variety of interesting ways.

STORIES TO KEEP THINGS RUNNING SMOOTHLY Smithy: But we should, I guess, start in the traditional manner and have Neville give us a tale of his weekend.

Neville: Oh, there's no tales to tell. Mind you, last night....

All: [Laugh]

This exchange took place at the beginning of a weekly project meeting in a commercial organisation. The kind of social talk which takes place at the openings of meetings helps to get people warmed up and involved. An amusing story about the weekend's activities can create a positive atmosphere and establish good rapport between team members. The stories establish an environment in which team members are more likely to communicate effectively with each other and hence achieve their business aims.

STORIES FOR TEAM BUILDING Stories also provide a means of siphoning off jealousy or expressing a competitive attitude towards other colleagues in an acceptable way. …

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Telling Tales at Work: The Low-Down on Gossip Though Typically Overlooked, Marginalised and Erased from the Official Record, Tales Told in the Workplaced Can Help Build a Productive Workplace Environment. Recent Research Shows That a Story Can Serve a Variety of Work-Related Purposes
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