Human beings crave coherence.
We long to be true to ourselves and to act in a way that’s consistent with what
we believe and value. We want to live and work authentically. This quest for
coherence is hardwired; psychologists often refer to human beings as “meaning-making machines.” Our brains create coherence by knitting together
our internal experience and what we observe in our environment, through an
automatic process of narration that explains why we and others do what we do. As
we repeat the resulting stories to ourselves (often unconsciously), they become
scripts and routines that guide our actions. And instead of recognizing our
stories for the constructions they are, we may mistakenly interpret them as
immutable truths, as “the way things are.”
We’ve encountered countless stories among our
coaching clients that shape the way they think and lead, such as, “Everything
is always a battle around here.” For better or for worse, our stories shape
what 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 expect
hostility. You’re primed to attack and defend. You may assume that casualties
are inevitable. You may misinterpret people’s intentions and overlook
opportunities to collaborate. There may come a time when you need to shift your
guiding story to one that enables you to pursue new goals or do things
The first step to authoring liberating stories is
to identify and examine the stories you tell yourself and others. This helps
you 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 basic
story you tell yourself about this issue? Our stories are rarely created in
isolation; they involve our relationships with others. Therefore, working with
the interpersonal aspects of our stories is an essential step toward authoring
stories that support our desired development.
If you find that one of your guiding stories limits
you, the next step is to consider what you’d like to change and how your story
would need to shift to help you achieve the transition. Do you want to adopt a
healthier lifestyle, find a new sense of purpose at work, and build stronger
relationships with family members? Making this change requires choosing which
elements of your story to bring forward and which to let go of.
Once we realize that our behaviour stems from
stories we construct and repeat until they seem fixed in stone, we become more
capable of authoring liberating stories.
Reconstituting our stories so that
they help us move in the direction we want to go is a process of choice and
intentional sense-making. Any leader can begin to develop this powerful skill
by learning to recognize the stories you live by — individually and
collectively as a team or organization — examining their effects, and refining
them to emphasize empowering elements. The rewards of doing so include an
increased sense of humanity, coherence, and liberation.
Adapted HBR Aug 2018
Valcour & McNulty
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