Human beings crave coherence.We long to be true to ourselves and to act in a way that’s consistent with whatwe believe and value. We want to live and work authentically. This quest forcoherence is hardwired; psychologists often refer to human beings as “meaning-making machines.” Our brains create coherence by knitting togetherour internal experience and what we observe in our environment, through anautomatic process of narration that explains why we and others do what we do. Aswe repeat the resulting stories to ourselves (often unconsciously), they becomescripts and routines that guide our actions. And instead of recognizing ourstories for the constructions they are, we may mistakenly interpret them asimmutable truths, as “the way things are.”
We’ve encountered countless stories among ourcoaching clients that shape the way they think and lead, such as, “Everythingis always a battle around here.” For better or for worse, our stories shapewhat we notice and how we interpret it. They inform our decision making and behaviour.If, for instance, you see your workplace as a battlefield, you expecthostility. You’re primed to attack and defend. You may assume that casualtiesare inevitable. You may misinterpret people’s intentions and overlookopportunities to collaborate. There may come a time when you need to shift yourguiding story to one that enables you to pursue new goals or do thingsdifferently.
The first step to authoring liberating stories isto identify and examine the stories you tell yourself and others. This helpsyou understand what you stand for and why you act and react the way you do.Identify a personal or collective challenge you’re facing. What is the basicstory you tell yourself about this issue? Our stories are rarely created inisolation; they involve our relationships with others. Therefore, working withthe interpersonal aspects of our stories is an essential step toward authoringstories that support our desired development.
If you find that one of your guiding stories limitsyou, the next step is to consider what you’d like to change and how your storywould need to shift to help you achieve the transition. Do you want to adopt ahealthier lifestyle, find a new sense of purpose at work, and build strongerrelationships with family members? Making this change requires choosing whichelements of your story to bring forward and which to let go of.
Once we realize that our behaviour stems fromstories we construct and repeat until they seem fixed in stone, we become morecapable of authoring liberating stories.
Reconstituting our stories so thatthey help us move in the direction we want to go is a process of choice andintentional sense-making. Any leader can begin to develop this powerful skillby learning to recognize the stories you live by — individually andcollectively as a team or organization — examining their effects, and refiningthem to emphasize empowering elements. The rewards of doing so include anincreased sense of humanity, coherence, and liberation.
Adapted HBR Aug 2018Valcour & McNulty
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