Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

Storytelling: An Approach to Knowing Organisations and Their People

Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

Storytelling: An Approach to Knowing Organisations and Their People

Article excerpt


Appreciating the effects of human nature in large complex organisations is an enduring frontier in effectively managing organisations. In this article we suggest that one way to know these effects, mixed with the size and complexity of organisations, is through storytelling that permeates the workplace. Stories are told about what happened or did not happen, what could have happened, or may happen. Stories are told about leaders, decisions made (or not), interpersonal and intraorganisational conflict, competition, and social relationships.

The workplace is itself much more like an ongoing story than anything else. Answering the question, "How did your day go?" can easily lead to telling stories especially in those cases where things happen that are hard to believe that they occurred, and certainly could not be easily envisioned to have happened. The phrase, "You can't make this stuff up" is often heard at work. We propose here to explore the nature of stories, storytelling, and story listening and then show how this appreciation informs organisational consulting and executive coaching.

We argue that storytelling is a vital qualitative method to help us understand and explain organisational life. Storytelling gives us access to the breadth and depth of workplace experience, what Diamond (1993) calls the "unconscious life of organizations", a world ruled as much as by the irrational, dark side of human nature as by rationality and enlightened self-interest (Allcorn & Stein, 2015). Storytelling also helps people and groups to heal when harmful organisational and leadership dysfunctions arise. Stories bear witness to painful events, create a shared moment with a listener, and, as we shall explain, can become an integral part of organisational consulting and coaching.

We begin with an overview of storytelling, and we then explore storytelling through the "lens" of Ogden's (1999a,b) concept of the "analytic third", and Winnicott's concepts of the "holding environment" (Bion, 1961) and "squiggle game" (Berger, 1980; Thurow, 1989; Winnicott, 1965). Next we provide a story that we then explore by using the perspective of the analytic third as a way to understand workplace stories. This psychodynamically informed approach adds a depth that is essential to understanding storytelling (Hummel, 1991; Pollack & Bono, 2013; Stein, 1994, 2007). Last, we explore our concept of the reflective third and other psychodynamic perspectives that contribute to understanding the story, storytelling, and the workplace.


The workplace stories we tell each other say much about human nature, stresses and strains, and how we cope with anxiety, including our use of psychological defences. While the workplace is filled with wonderful and humane behaviour and leadership, it also all too often devolves into hard-to-understand dysfunctional abusive, manipulative, and sadistic behaviour that sabotages organisational performance and harms employees.

What do stories offer organisational research and consulting that quantitative and other qualitative methods lack? For worker, researcher, and consultant alike, stories offer meaning and experience that help us to make sense of "what it is like to work here" (workplace). Stories embody metaphors that are cues to the psychodynamic processes that underlie them (Diamond, 2014). Stories thus offer access to the affective, expressive, dimensions of life. Yiannis Gabriel (2011) argues that research on organisational storytelling has increased in the last two decades when stories started to become data for organisational analysis. Data-collection now often includes stories. Gabriel writes (2011):

.. .why do stories influence hearts and minds in a way that the cold power of logic, science and facts fail to do? It seems to me that the ready availability of information and data, far from undermining the power of storytelling, has reinforced it. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.