The Power of Stories

Yesterday i wrote about ‘story listening’. Today, i want to reflect on just what stories are: who owns them, how do they flow, how dangerous are they, and how important they are within the context of the Social Age.

The Hidden Story

Stories are the mechanism of transmission of cultural and tacit knowledge: they are units of information, heavily contextualised, highly magnetic, almost frictionless, and can be very, very, long lived. If i tell a story, i may own it, right up until the point that i share it, but at that time, it takes wings, and becomes real. Stories shared are stories relinquished: despite legal frameworks in which we retain ownership of the husk, the germ of truth that resides within a story is let loose through sharing. The essence of it, the ‘story’ itself, is more than simply © words, and trademarked phrases. Stories are meant to flow.

Not all stories manage it though: the authenticity, the quality, the relevance, the timeliness, the fit, the alignment with what i know to be true, there are countless factors that can consign a story to purgatory or, worse, forgetfulness.

One mechanism of flow is amplification: i read or hear a story, i like it, it resonates with me in some way, so i share it. If my network is strong, if my community trusts me, if i have curated an appropriate reputation, then it may be picked up, amplified, it may flow.

Within Social Leadership, i consider ‘storytelling’, and, latterly, ‘story listening’, to be key skills. Because we need to hear the stories that flow through our communities, if we are to be privileged with the tacit knowledge that they contain, and because we need to be great storytellers if we are to share our own wisdom, with humility, to those very communities.

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Story Listening

Part of #WorkingOutLoud is to continually revisit your work, iterating new ideas as you prototype and trial things out in practice. With that in mind, i’ve been sharing some new language around ‘Story Listening’, to sit as part of developing your own Social Leadership skills. It’s really about how we respond to stories, and to the ways in which they are shared. The specific impetus for this has been seeing instances where stories are shared by the community, but killed stone dead by the formal authority (which doesn’t want to hear them, or doesn’t recognise them well).

Story Listening

When stories are shared out of the social community, we need to hear them: we need to be in the right spaces, with the right type of (socially moderated) authority, if we are to have a chance of hearing them. We need to earn trust within these spaces, and understand how consequence is experienced and anticipated. It’s important to establish our potential to hear: to earn the trust, to engage with humility, to be ready to hear.

Once stories are shared, we must respect what is said, however it lines up against our view: apply a formal response to a socially shared story is to miss the point. This is not about assessment or agreement, it’s about listening with humility, and being privileged to hear alternative views. It’s a curse of formal systems to feel the need to know everything already, to say ‘yes, we are doing that here…’. Sometimes, you need to respect other views, and other authority, and especially to recognise the value in stories of difference. Alternative viewpoints, diverse opinions. As Social Leaders, we don’t have to unify the different stories, we have to understand them.

Social Leadership 100 - Stories

The ways in which we thank people for contributing is important too: a formal ‘thank you’ may carry little weight in social spaces, instead we should bolster the reputation of people who share stories, we should help them to build their own Social Authority. We can even devolve ways of letting the community itself moderate it’s own reward and recognition, with, for example, socially defined and moderated badges.

Storytelling is a core skill for Social Leaders, but Story Listening, no less so. It’s intimately tied into the humility of Social Leadership, the ability to craft stories of difference and dissent, not to colonise them with what we think is ‘right’, but rather to learn from them, and discover where we ourselves may be wrong.

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Developing a Prototype Trust Diagnostic

The ‘Landscape of Trust’ research has three aims: to build an evidence base behind the language around ‘trust’, to build diagnostics, visualisations, and frameworks to understand how trust flows at all levels within systems, and to prototype and grounded developmental frameworks for ‘what we can do about it’. Whilst the research itself is still early stage, i want to start work to explore potential diagnostic and visualisation approaches, with a view to prototyping them rapidly, across the rest of this year. With that in mind, i’m sharing an initial design today, and will continue to #WorkOutLoud as i build it out. I have several organisations willing to prototype.

The Landscape of Trust

The Landscape of Trust research is grounded in stories: gathering narrative accounts of ‘what trust means to me’, and other questions around failure, flow, and type. We can plot these words onto a landscape. My hypothesis is that we will each inhabit different spaces: areas of commonality, highways and byways, but we also occupy outlier spaces. In the critical discourse analysis, we group the words into clusters, so either through direct choice of words, or by asking questions around the clusters, we should be able, at a rudimentary level, to characterise the individual landscape.

Furthermore, we should be able to plot it individually, and aggregate to the group, so that we can baseline individually against group, group against group, and group against external baselines e.g. Geographical, age, culture etc.

With a map of trust within a group, we should be able to generate narrative based on how my map relates to yours, which would allow more of an App based tool to emerge, linking into wider developmental and visualisation frameworks.

This is early stage work. I am clear that trust is multi layered, contextual, fluid, so a diagnostic is only really able to snapshot aspects of the moment, but that may be enough. One thing i know for sure: if we build evidence, share it openly, learn clearly, prototype and adapt, we may at least get to a grounded, useful, usable, tool set.

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Cultural Lava

I was talking about the evolution of culture today, trying to explain how culture forms, sets, how new cultures overrun the old. I used some new language, around lava: if you’ve ever seen lava flow, it starts red hot, but as it meets the cold air, the outer layer sets, it slows, crusts over, but as pressure builds, the dark crust cracks, splits, and new lava rolls out, over it.

Cultural Lava

In rapidly scaling organisations, an effect emerges, where the old culture barely has time to settle before being overtaken by new and emergent ones, populated by individuals with new ideas, new behaviours, new values, who are simply never subsumed into the old one.

Organisational culture always runs the risk of stratifying, specifically where one community finds an oppositional strength against a new, emergent one.

The analogy is imperfect, but i rather enjoyed the viscous nature of the flowing lava, the sense that culture is unstoppable, that it does not flow evenly, and most of all, that it’s subsumed by the new.

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When Strength Becomes Weakness

Within the maelstrom of change as organisations seek to adapt to the new realities of the Social Age, there’s an important aspect to consider: in a new space, our historic strengths may be our contemporary weakness. The codified strength of an organisation is often desperately narrow, so whilst the boat feels both large and strong when moving forward, it’s extremely unstable in a heavy swell from the side.

When Strength Becomes Weakness

It’s in the nature of organisations to accrete system, process, and control: they optimise within the known state, drive consistency and replicability to scale, they align to value chains and extract profit and achieve purpose. They build strong walls and set out deep foundations. They become strong in one dimension.

But growth comes through change, and change takes us away from our strong foundations: those things that made us strong can leave us brittle when subjected to disruptive forces that lie outside our mindset, modelling, and experience.

In itself, this would not be a challenge, if we were able to move, but we can be constrained by our own mindsets, our pyramids of power, and the tribal ties we have in the current culture. We are safe where we stand.

The constraint we face is often not imposed from outside: it’s generated from within.

The second risk we face is that the areas we look to diversify into are often emergent, and in that context, open to disruption. So we are in a double bind: rapidly emergent spaces, and disruptive innovation from without, countered with a loss of our own strength through scale.

Creating external, dedicated teams, isolated innovation labs, arms length capability, is often an approach, but it misses a key part of change. We need to evolve culture, and mindset. A humility to accept the need to change, an experimentation to find out how, and shift in power, away from hierarchy to reputation. These are factors we can influence.

Ultimately, in times of change, we need individual agency: the capability to hear weak voices within the system. Formal strength can build a tower, but social strength can move it.

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Organisational Pollution and Ethical Choice

Our choices are made within a framework of consequence, some externally applied, some internally moderated. Our ethical framework, the moral principles that govern our behaviour, is neither absolute, not rigid: it’s learned and flexible, influenced through a range of factors, some of which exist as pressure from our communities, and some of which originates as organisational pollution. It’s within this fluid structure that our leadership choices are made, and are judged, often by multiple concurrent courts of popular opinion.

Landscape of Trust - Triangle of Trust

There is a gap between our intention, and our action, and between our action, and our impact. The relationships that exist are causal, but not deterministic. Our intention shapes our action, but it does not determine it. I may intend to be good, but my actions may betray that fact. I may act in a way that i believe to be good, but the impact may be different from that intended. In reality, the links between values and intention, and action, and impact, are stretched thin.

Culture fails within an organisation when these links are broken: when behaviour as exhibited loses coherence with assumed ethical frameworks: i say ‘assumed’, because there is both an organisational and individual assumption ofttimes that we are aligned in intent and value, when in reality, multiple pressures act upon us, and different internal checks are used, to keep us within a loose frame of alignment.

We often talk about ‘peer pressure’, and there is plenty of evidence that we are socially moderated, that individual behaviour is not as free as we may care to think. Partly this is driven by a fear of social consequence and exclusion. But it’s willingly embraced: it’s the cohesive force on our communities, a force that moderates extreme outlier behaviours into acceptable norms.

We could consider our ethical framework, in some context, as our internal judge: new actions are held up against this frame to see how they fit. But it’s a noisy courtroom. Ethical and cultural failure is sometimes deliberate, a trading off of varied pressures. Sometimes the price of standing up is high. Look at the treatment of whistleblowers, whose reward for reporting on unethical behaviour is often bullying, disenfranchisement, and social exclusion.

Last weekend i was walking through a field when the person in front of me threw a drinks can on the ground. I muttered to my friend, moaned about the behaviour, explained that that type of behaviour was unthinkable to me, but entirely failed to confront the man who threw the can down. The can now lying on the ground was an explicit failure of his ethical framework, and a tacit failure of mine. Whilst i was able to observe and disagree, my lack of action was the mechanism by which culture fails. It’s often through these trade offs that the small steps to the cliff edge are taken.

I did the same thing in another context recently: a racist taxi driver complaining about immigrants. I tried to use silence to indicate displeasure, but in reality it was a moral cowardice that prevented me countering his view: don’t get me wrong, i rationalised it extremely well. I convinced myself of all sorts of reasons why i would not speak like that, how abhorrent his language was. I internally claimed the moral high ground, whilst externally failing to colonise any ground whatsoever. Indeed, i actively leveraged open a cultural rift.

Culture is complex, but ultimately moderated through the actions of every individual, in the moment, through individual action, or lack thereof.

Organisational pollution is a feature of systems that leave individuals unwilling to challenge formal authority: where trust is low, or cost is high, either cost in terms of formal sanction, or cost in terms of social exclusion.

Perhaps our role in considering the development of Social Leadership is twofold: to help leaders identify organisational pollution, and to provide access to the type of power that lets us counter toxic, dominant, cultural effects. In other words, how can we produce leaders within a system who are able to overcome the system: how can we use a system of dominant cultural effect to counter that very system of dominant cultural effect, when the effect is felt as pervasive pollution, and direct application of social consequence around dissent?

If we consider the two aspects of the organisation, the formal systems, that which we can see, own, and control, and the social system, the network of trust, pride, and social authority that is invisible from the outside, then it’s clear that ethics sit within the social. For sure, we can write rules within the formal system, but behaviour is also moderated by the social.

Providing leaders with the lens to understand this, the tools to observe it, and the power to counter it, is what effective leadership development should surely be about. A highly coherent culture is a feature of a Socially Dynamic organisation: a fractured and polluted one is the culture of a broken one.

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Gender Effects in Trust: a #WorkingOutLoud post

Do men and women think about, or experience, ‘trust’ differently? At this early stage in the Landscape of Trust research, it’s hard to say for sure, but what is clear is that, across a range of metrics, gender is one of the most mobile variables. Yesterday i wrote about the clear difference in the emotional tone words that the different genders use, and this effect was also visible in the earlier analysis of the use of the words ‘trust’ and ‘mistrust’: in the first analysis, more women than men used the word ‘mistrust’, whilst in the larger group analysis, the effect reversed by 180 degrees, so currently more men use ‘mistrust’ in their descriptions.

Does Gender Impact Trust

None of this can have too much read into it: one possibility of the movement is the nature of the data gathering. Often i work with a new group, i recruit a new cohort, and they take part in the research, and it’s a fact of the groups i work with that they can often be strongly gender biased. For example. When i work with military groups, they often are predominantly male, nurses are often predominantly female, HR groups tend to be more female, so this may cause the data to lurch. Or there may be deeper effects.

I could share a hypothesis that cultural normalisation causes us to take gender stereotyped roles, and that this is showing up in the data. Forgive my choosing a clumsy example, but one ‘stereotype’ might be that in a relationship breakup, the women will cry and sit with her friends, whilst a may will go out drinking and be boisterous with his mates (i’m deliberately choosing a clumsy stereotype). Perhaps this feeds into culturally normalised use of language?

There are some other effects around gender that are interesting, around some of the calibration questions. Here are the results from two of them:

Those devoted to unselfish causes are often exploited by others”, where [1] is ‘Strongly Disagree’, and [5] is ‘Strongly Agree’.

In the age group of 24-35, women average 2.42 and men, 3.86, so a significant shift, and one that is getting stronger as the sample size grows (this result is from analysis of the first 178 responses).

There will be more people who will not work if the social security system is developed further”, where [1] is ‘Strongly Disagree’, and [5] is ‘Strongly Agree’.

In the same age bracket, of 24-35, women average at 2.31, and men at 3.42, again, a significant difference.

Out of all the factors being measured, admittedly with what is still a small sample size, gender is the most common variable affecting responses.

I stressed yesterday the nature of this Landscape of Trust research, and i will repeat today: i’m using community to carry out an ambitious global study to produce an open data set. We are sharing one level of analysis, but i hope in time that other people will reinterpret it and share others, and that between us we will form and test ideas. My reflection is this: cultural roles are deeply embedded from a very early age, gender stereotypes are dominant and persistent, so i expect that some of this will be embedded into our patterns of language. If that were true, it would not be surprising that we see differences.

Beyond that, i am less sure: some stereotypes may lead us to think that women are more emotional, perhaps more likely to be reflective. Men may be more likely to be brusque or macho about the subject. But bear in mind the other data i shared yesterday: the significant majority of participants, across both genders, strongly used ‘analytic’ language around trust, with a minority using ‘confident’ language. So no strong gender effect there.

This is early stage #WorkingOutLoud, perhaps as the sample grows, these effects will iron out: certainly we will consciously try to effect balance, for example, i can recruit a group of male nurses to take part.

Again, my own view is this: i don’t think that men and women experience trust differently, but i could see that there may be trends towards willingness to reflect upon it, and i could see differences in normalised language showing up, but with all of this, time will tell.

Please feel free to share your own experiences and views, and do take part in the research if you have not yet done so. I will be sharing the first Research Report at the end of September, you can sign up here.

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