People don’t believe what you tell them. They rarely believe what you show them. They often believe what their friends tell them. They always believe what they tell themselves. What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and about change. Seth Godin
As I mentioned in story editing techniques for behavior change, story editing is a set of techniques for redirecting people’s narratives about themselves, others, and the social world in a positive way that leads to lasting behavioral change. How does this apply in an organizational context?
“I don’t take time to play with it because I don’t figure it will be here that long.”
“This company has a history of jumping into something like this with new technology and at the beginning really being cheerleaders. But then there seems to be a fallout after the train leaves the station. Some passengers still standing there wondering if there’s another train. A culture problem the company has to deal with.”
“No one wants to spend a lot of time on effort on something that’s ‘oh, now we’re doing this.’ Until you find out it’s staying.”
Reflect on these stories for a minute. What do they illustrate about the organizational mindset?
The narrative these people had formed about technology change initiatives was that they always fail. There may very well have been successful initiatives, but the stories remembered and spread were of failure. And based on the remembered stories of failure, they act. Or in this case, fail to act.
Like individuals, organizations can suffer from a fixed mindset.
How can we edit these personal or shared narratives? In Redirect, Timothy Wilson discusses three story editing techniques .
Story editing techniques
Pennebaker’s writing technique
Pennebaker’s writing technique helps people make a story out of a problem or a difficult experience. You step back from the experience and watch it unfold from the perspective of neutral observer. Instead of reliving the experience and feelings, you focus on why you feel the way you do. Focusing on the why allows you to find meaning, which makes the experience more manageable.
Story prompting for best possible selves
Imagine you’re struggling to eat healthy and lose weight. One day, you really blow it. What story do you tell yourself? Possibly something along the lines of “I blew it. I’m never going to be able to stick with this. I might as well just keep eating…” Then you avoid the scale for weeks. It turns out, people who are successful in keeping weight off have learned to tell themselves a different story, something along the lines of “I overindulged yesterday, but today I’ll get back to my regular healthy eating habits.”
Story prompting uses subtle prompts to change how people interpret events in ways that make it easier for them to act in beneficial ways. Wilson shares two methods for story prompting:
- Give people information that allows them to reframe their experiences. For example, talking to first year university students to let them know that many people struggle first year, but end up doing well.
- Assign a writing exercise. “Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined. Do this for 20 minutes per day three days in a row. Don’t just think about what you have achieved, but also how you got there.” Through the process of imagining how well things turn out in future, we focus on ways of achieving those goals and think about what we need to do to get there.
Do good, be good: changing behavior first
[People acquire virtues] by first having them put into action.. we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlling by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage. Aristotle
Our behavior shapes the personal narratives we develop. If we act kind, we see ourselves as being a kind person. If we see ourselves as a kind person, we’re more likely to help others. And once we help others, we strengthen this new narrative of ourselves as a kind person.
This is the technique I used to learn how to present. I was terrified the first time but I did it anyway. Once I made it through my first presentation, I was able to start seeing myself as a presenter. “Hey, that went pretty well. I can do presentations after all.” Each presentation I’ve done since then has helped build and reinforce my perception of myself as a presenter.
To use the do good, be good technique, think about who you want to be. A kind person. Presenter. Adventurer. Collaborator. Healthy eater. Then identify the behaviors practiced by that type of person. Choose one of the behaviors and start practicing it, repeating regularly until it becomes a habit. Then choose another behavior.
Implications for organizational change
The stories circulating in your organization will have a significant impact on the success (or failure) of your change effort. If your organization has a fixed mindset, filled with stories of all the reasons why it can’t possibly succeed, then your initiative will fail unless you can design interventions aimed at editing these stories. And traditional communications and training approaches to change usually fail to do this. Ask yourself:
- What stories are people telling themselves about the change you’re trying to introduce? What do stories reveal about the assumptions and mental models driving people’s current behavior? Have you listened, done your emotional due diligence to uncover these stories?
- Have you identified the specific behaviors that, if broken down to a micro level, could be used for the “do good, be good” technique?
- What stories are you telling yourself about the change, people’s reaction to the change, and how do these stories affect your approach to change? I’ll blog more about why this is important in a future post.
Once you’ve identified stories that reveal fixed mindsets or counterproductive mental models, you can intervene using story editing techniques that allow people to make sense of the change, create a strong understanding of why, edit existing stories counterproductive to the change, and develop new stories supportive of the change.
Reflecting back on the stories I shared at the beginning of this post, how could story editing help shift the fixed organizational mindset they hint at? Here are a couple of possibilities:
- Use story prompting to highlight successful projects. Share the fact that people may have initially struggled early on to learn the new technology and incorporate it into the way they work, but that after an initial adjustment period they successfully made the change and it’s now the way things are done. I can also imagine using story prompting for specific behaviors. For example, converting negative stories sparked by having to tag content when uploading from “it’s too slow to add documents” or “it takes too many clicks” to “it take a couple of extra clicks to tag a document, but it sure saves a lot of time from that point on whenever anyone needs to find it.”
- Do good, be good. Using collaborative document repositories requires significant behavior change. Instead of keeping paper documents in file cabinets, storing electronic documents on a personal computer where only they have access, or keeping copies of documents on a disorganized shared drive only accessible to a team, people are expected to use a shared corporate repository. Many may fit the persona of “keepers” or “hoarders” who see documents as “mine” versus “sharers” who see documents as “ours.” What behavior might start a shift in mindset from “mine” to “ours?” Perhaps getting them adding documents to the repository by sponsoring a competition for the biggest uploader or having a team upload party?
- Writing technique. At first I was going to dismiss this technique as problematic in an organizational context. But interactive workshops and gamestorming sessions could be used in a similar way as a platform for social sensemaking similar to the writing technique for personal sensemaking. Interactive social sensemaking techniques lead to shared stories, shared views, and shared mental models.
Behavior is contagious. Each small change (individual, team, or department) can have a ripple effect, leading to larger more profound changes.
What interventions can you use to edit the stories, changing the mindset of your organization, leading to the behavior change required for success?