Academic journal article Administrative Science Quarterly

The Storytelling Organization: A Study of Story Performance in an Office-Supply Firm

Academic journal article Administrative Science Quarterly

The Storytelling Organization: A Study of Story Performance in an Office-Supply Firm

Article excerpt

The Storytelling Organization: A Study of Story Performance in an Office-Supply Firm


Organizations As Storytelling Systems

In organizations, storytelling is the preferred sense-making currency of human relationships among internal and external stakeholders. People engage in a dynamic process of incremental refinement of their stories of new events as well as on-going reinterpretations of culturally sacred story lines. When a decision is at hand, the old stories are recounted and compared to unfolding story lines to keep the organization from repeating historically bad choices and to invite the repetition of past successes. In a turbulent environment, the organization halls and offices pulsate with a story life of the here and now that is richer and more vibrant than the firm's environments.

Even in stable times, the story is highly variable and sometimes political, in that part of the collective processing involves telling different versions of stories to different audiences. Only the chief executive officer (CEO) and a few executives may be told that the sales manager was fired for drunken indiscretions with a saleswoman on the CEO's couch; vendors only hear that the manager did not get on with the CEO; customers learn that Fred resigned; middle management suspects an affair with Mildred. Each performance is never the completed story; it is an unraveling process of confirming new data and new interpretations as these become part of an unfolding story line.

Stories are to the storytelling system what precedent cases are to the judicial system. Just as in the courtroom, stories are performed among stakeholders to make sense of an equivocal situation. The implication of stories as precedents is that story performances are part of an organization-wide information-processing network. Bits and pieces of organization experience are recounted socially throughout the firm to formulate recognizable, cogent, defensible, and seemingly rational collective accounts that will serve as precedent for individual assumption, decision, and action. This is the institutional memory system of the organization. Although individuals are limited information processors, each person retains a part of the story line, a bit of interpretation, story performance practices, and some facts that confirm a line of reasoning.

Story Performance

Even when there are eye witnesses, to continue the analogy with courtroom behavior, the interpretation of the exact sequence of events and how those events speak of the motive of the defendant are made or broken in the performance of the story and by the credibility of the teller. What is interesting about storytelling in organizations is that stakeholders also posit alternative stories with alternative motives and implications to the very same underlying historical incident. The story takes on more importance than mere objective facts. In complex organizations, part of the reason for storytelling is the working out of those differences in the interface of individual and collective memory.

The important fact is that most storytelling is done in conversation and involves the listeners in various ways. Some sociolinguists have analyzed how conversations happen and, in a few studies, how stories are told: how people introduce stories, how they extend and interrupt stories, and, in general, how story performances occur within common turn-by-turn talk situations. Harvey Sacks (1972a, 1972b) and his followers (Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson, 1974; Jefferson, 1973, 1978; Ryave, 1978) have investigated the contexted occurrence of stories in conversations. These are complex aspects of storytelling in organizations that have been ignored in previous approaches to story analysis. We all tell stories, and during better performances we feel the adrenalin pump as word pictures dance in our intellect and we begin to live the episode vicariously or recall similar life events. …

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