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The persuasive power of the tale: The dynamics of managerial storytelling
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Dr Stefanie Reissner
Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)
4th International Conference on Rhetoric and Narrative in Management Research
Year of Conference
24-26 March 2011
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Persuasion is at the heart of management (Flory and Iglesias 2010), and more and more managers use the persuasive nature of storytelling purposively to communicate with their staff. The notion of managerial storytelling as a tool for effective communication is not new, but has only recently come to the attention of a wider audience (Denning 2005). Its apparent effectiveness relies largely on anecdotal evidence, and this is problematic. Both intrigued by the potentially persuasive power of storytelling as a means of managerial communication (Brown et al. 2005) and sceptical of the claims of its effectiveness, I embarked on qualitative and inductive research to investigate the use of managerial storytelling. The research is set in a strategic partnership (called Public-Private-Partnership, or PPP, in this paper) between an English local authority and a FTSE100 company that uses storytelling as a means to engage the workforce and to facilitate organisational change. PPP was founded in 2008 to improve the provision of services for the local-authority parent as well as the overall economic position of what is widely regarded as a deprived area. Several hundred staff were transferred from the local authority into PPP under their existing contracts, and PPP’s private-sector parent is striving to run these services more efficiently. PPP is a challenging endeavour in which managers try to create a new culture that reflects both its local-authority and private-sector heritage while meeting the needs of a deprived community in testing economic times. The term ‘story’ in PPP has two main uses: firstly, as a means of formulating the organisation’s vision, mission, purpose and identity (‘telling the story of PPP’), and secondly, as a means to build and maintain relationships at work, to share knowledge and experiences, and to develop staff (Denning 2005). The former use of storytelling is a key element in defining what PPP stands for, in creating a shared culture, and in engaging staff in the organisation and the way in which it operates. It is a tool used by senior management in various forms, the use of which has not been made explicit to organisational actors. The latter use of storytelling is more spontaneous and intuitive and prevails among line managers interacting with their staff, albeit in a no less persuasive manner. Not all stories do the trick, however. Some stories do indeed persuade the audience while others evoke no reaction and others again are met with cynicism. The range of factors influencing the audience’s reaction to a story is the focus of this paper. I propose a continuum of reactions, which can range from persuasion on one end and cynicism on the other. Firstly, a story is unlikely to get a reaction if it is of insufficient interest to the audience. This can either be due to a lack of engagement with what is happening in the organisation or a lack of relevance of the story to the individual’s expectations and experiences. Albeit rare, this reaction has featured in my research and is largely due to the individuals’ circumstances, such as administrator Pat whose temporary contract rolled over on a monthly basis. Secondly, a story is likely to be met with cynicism when it goes against the audience’s expectations or previous experiences. This may be best described as ‘baggage’, in which organisational actors draw on past experiences that taint their relationship with their managers and the way the organization is managed. Many interviewees recalled experiences with previous managers in which they were deceived or let down, thus leading to distrust and suspicion in management as such. Hence, many staff at PPP initially meet managerial communication with suspicion and detachment, and such cynicism continues to linger among many organisational groups. PPP’s management are actively seeking to build trust with employees by ‘walking the talk’ in daily operations. Thirdly, a story is likely to persuade the audience if it tallies with their expectations and experiences. The relationship between storyteller and audience appears to be a critical factor here: if the audience does not trust the storyteller, the story – however good – is unlikely to persuade them. Hence, findings suggest that new members of staff (who do not have comparable amounts of ‘baggage’ than their longer-serving counterparts) and those colleagues for whom changes are positive are most easily persuaded by managerial stories. These individuals tend to engage in the organisation and exhibit new ways of thinking and behaving. It is these members of staff who tend to be positive about PPP and their own future in the organisation; in their case, the stories have struck a cord with their expectations and aspirations and they have found a part to play in that story. This is not to say that this transition is quick or easy; HR expert Dan, for example, took two years to make it and has only recently become a full part of PPP and its goals for the future. The literature on managerial storytelling tends to emphasise the importance of a ‘good’ story (e.g. Simmons 2007), the assumption being that it is the story with its plot and characters that has persuasive power. My findings confirm that a ‘good’ story is important; however, they also suggest that it is not enough to persuade the audience. The relationship between storyteller and audience is crucial here, and this includes the motives for telling a story and any actions and behaviours that are related to it. Interviewees at PPP stressed the importance of the storytellers’ authenticity and sincerity in telling their story, which allows them to trust both the storyteller and the story. This, in turn, allows them to engage with the story and make it come true for themselves and their organisation – or, in other words, to be persuaded. Hence, the persuasive power of managerial storytelling depends on the delicate interplay of the different elements outlined above that have to work together to achieve their persuasive potential.
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