Friday 1 October 2010

In Praise of Pride and Prejudice

This describes the thinking behind my forthcoming book: Freeing People to Perform - How changing their stories can transform your people

It is long: a more elegant version for reading/printing is on Scribd

As Jane Austen might have written, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there are two sides to every story.  However, the multistory approach recognises that in fact there are many more than two stories to every side.
By way of a few stories, I hope to illustrate the power of working with others’ stories - and our own - in unblocking difficulties and winning hearts and minds.  I include one disaster story, as we often learn as much from our failures as our successes.  Here are the starts of some stories which we will re-visit later in this article.
The Story of the Coffee Cup
The row over the unwashed coffee cup blew up suddenly and escalated dramatically.  One of the protagonists, Annie, got herself signed off work for stress, and the other, Clare, complained to the Deputy Chief Executive.  The whole department seemed to be in meltdown and the team leader unable to cope.  It was as though civil war had broken out with an intensity of hostilities and recriminations that was hard to believe.
Of course, it became clear that the coffee cup was only the last straw in a long-running feud between the Clare and Annie, who had managed to get most of the department to side with one or other of them. Regular councils of war were held by each party in the staff restaurant, where the latest news of the hostility of the other was told and re-told.
The question was, how was it possible to sort this mess out?  The hostilities actually went back almost two years and were deeply embedded.  Annie and Clare could each tell a terrible story of the other: of provocation, rudeness, unreasonableness, and so on.  And in that word story lay the start of a solution.
The Story of the Reluctant Leader
Mike had recently been promoted to team leader and was doing a great job.  The one concern his boss had was that he seemed to lack confidence in his own abilities as a leader.   However, all the indicators were positive: productivity was high, morale was high, absenteeism and sickness were low.  But Mike believed he was a fraud, and that in accepting the leader’s job, and salary, he was cheating the organisation.  His boss needed to break through this but was not sure it would be possible.
The Story of the Unpromotable Managers
After the management assessment centre, the unsuccessful candidates, who had been identified as not having potential for promotion, were sent on a series of workshops to address their deficiencies - or as they saw it, to lick their wounds...  Within the year, nearly all had secured a promotion, after all.

The Story of the Offstage Character
This story is an example of where the ideas outlined in this article failed to deliver, so we will hold it back until the ideas have been articulated.
The Story of the Blind Hog
This tells how an ordinary trainer, facilitator and coach, who made a living using material, ideas and skills learned from others, finally, and almost accidentally, created an approach of real meaning and value himself... only to learn that he was not after all the first to stumble across such ideas.  As they say, even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while.
We all know that people often hold different views of the same reality: ‘the map is not the territory’ has become something of a mantra in some circles.  We are also familiar with the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy: that believing in something may make it come true.  Indeed this wisdom goes back a long way: it is the stuff of Greek tragedy.  Oedipus’ parents, fearing the prophecies made about him at his birth, seek to prevent their coming true, and in so doing create the very circumstances which cause Oedipus to fulfil them.  
What I, the Blind Hog, discovered is a powerful way of using these insights and the whole concept of story, to dissolve conflicts, remove stumbling blocks, and enable great performance. 
However, I did find that in many ways I was re-creating in an organisational context, approaches used in therapeutic settings.  Moreover, once I started to look at that literature, I was able to enrich my approach with some of their techniques; however I am always aware that I am not a therapist, and my approach is a pragmatic one which leaders in any organisation could adopt and adapt.
So what’s the big idea?  
The basic principle is to recognise how we create stories, normally outside of our conscious awareness, to make sense of our experience, and then live out these stories.  Further, over time, we may well have collected a multiplicity of stories, sometimes contradictory, and that there are times when not all of these are available to us; particularly if a dominant story is very strong and muscles others off-stage.  By a dominant story, I mean one which has taken the foreground to such an extent that it is perceived, at least for a time, as the whole truth.  Typically, in the situations in which I am asked to help, these are problem-saturated, or conflict-saturated stories.  For example...
When Clare (in the Story of the Coffee Cup) started work at her first job, she was young, and inexperienced in the world of work.  However, she was outgoing and apparently confident.  When embarrassed, she had the habit of laughing as a nervous release.  Annie had worked in the department for years.  She had a heart of gold, but a slightly dour manner which often concealed that.  She understood how important precision was in the department’s work, as their output was often used in court cases, and could be torn apart by hostile lawyers unless it was perfect.  
Clare did not report to Annie, but Annie noticed a couple of errors in Clare’s work and pointed them out.  Clare was upset by this, and gave her nervous laugh.  And from that small interaction, each built a huge edifice of meaning.  Clare saw Annie as bullying and interfering; Annie saw Clare as insubordinate, unconcerned about her work and cheeky.
From that moment, without realising it, each had started to construct a story about the other, and collected evidence to prove that her story was real.  From then, all interactions which confirmed, or seemed to confirm, the dominant narrative were noticed, collected and believed.  Any interactions which seemed to contradict the story were either discounted as atypical, or not noticed at all.  Neutral interactions were interpreted according to the story; and all of this outside the conscious awareness of either party.
From there it was a short step to recruiting allies and briefing them; and in that process, stories were re-told, often with extra colour, and their truth became unassailable; they were really dominant.  And from there it was only a matter of time till the whole department went to war with itself.
But what was interesting to discover, and proved the salvation of this team, was that these dominant narratives were not the only stories that each protagonist told herself.  Buried quite deep under the surface were others.  When asked (and after being allowed sufficient time to tell her dominant narrative) Clare was able to tell of another Annie; an Annie who had been demonstrably kind to her on a number of occasions.  “That’s what’s so maddening!” she said, “Sometimes she can be really nice - I just don’t know where I am with her.”
The same was true for Mike (the hero of the Story of the Reluctant Leader).  His dominant story, that he was a sham as a leader, concealed another, that he was helping the team to perform well.  Mike’s stories also helped me to recognise the link between these narratives and people’s underlying value systems.  The reason this was such a big issue for Mike was that he felt a genuine commitment to the work of the organisation which employed him, and had a strong personal ethic around a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.  Helping Mike to re-engage with his story about himself as having a real commitment to the organisation, and being essentially an honest person was part of the process we went through.
It is worth pointing out, at this stage, that my accounts of the people and stories in this article are themselves stories: narratives constructed to convey meaning.  The real people are far more subtle and complex than I can capture in a few lines, and their stories more varied.
Working with story
Given that understanding, of how stories are built and how most of us hold onto a multiplicity of different stories, we can start to work with them in some simple and powerful ways.
Annie and Clare (The Story of the Coffee Cup) were helped to rebuild their relationship by rebuilding their stories about each other and their relationship.  This was not done through some quick trick like ‘re-framing,’ but by a rigorous exploration of their perceptions and interpretations.
The first step was to build sufficient trust with each of them individually to be able to help them.  A key part of that was, in a confidential one-to-one setting, to listen to their stories in their entirety - and to respect them. That involved resisting the urge to challenge or correct either of them when she made a leap of logic which was clearly fallacious.  At the conclusion, each heard a sympathetic summary of her story, designed to demonstrate that she had been truly heard, and that she was not being challenged on the story.  That is an important step, as the stories were dear to them and any attack might cause them to cling more tightly to them: but my agenda was to get them to loosen their grip just a little bit.
The next step in the process was to talk a little about stories, how we construct them and collect evidence and so on.  I did this by talking about my mother-in-law and my wife: a classic tale of love and misunderstanding....; something each was able to relate to and recognise - and laugh at.  Somehow when we look at others’ stories, it is much easier for us to see that stories have an existence of their own, separate from the protagonists.  This distancing, or externalising, of the story is the prelude to starting to question it.
That created the atmosphere for a gentle probing of the comprehensiveness of their stories: was there anything which had happened over the last two years which did not fit the story so well?  In the conversation with Clare, that was when the tears finally broke through and she made the “That’s what’s so maddening!” comment.  In fact, when asked, she provided numerous examples of Annie’s kindness.
Now that her grip on the story was a little loosened and her curiosity about it as a story was engaged, I posed a different type of question:  ‘If you had to give this story a name, like a fairy tale, what would you call it?’  After the barest moment’s reflection she replied: “The Princess and the Ogre!”
That created all sorts of possibilities. Some we pursued were asking whether Annie really got out of bed each day with an ogre-ish desire to make the princess’s life hell; and what Annie’s story might be called.  We debated various options for that, in a fairly light-hearted way.  This whole segment of the conversation was designed to continue the loosening of Clare’s grip on her story, by creating some distance between her and it (by the explicit naming of it as a story ‘out there’ as it were), by recognising the hyperbole implicit in the designation of Annie as an ‘ogre,’ and by starting to imagine how it might look from Annie’s perspective (by considering her name for it).
That led us to the moment where it seemed appropriate to re-consider Clare’s story.  What I proposed was that there might alternative narratives to The Princess and the Ogre; stories which accounted for more of the evidence (including Annie’s acts of kindness) and that were less implausible than casting her as an ogre.  I asked Clare if she would be interested to hear Annie’s story, if Annie were willing to listen to hers, and to explore whether between them they could construct better stories of the past and for the future.  She needed some convincing that Annie would enter into the spirit of enquiry I was suggesting, but agreed that if Annie was prepared to, she would be.
Having had a parallel conversation with Annie, and also with all the other members of the team, we finally got to a stage where the whole team came together to look for a way forward.  The one thing on which the whole team strongly agreed was that things could not go on the way they had been.  Whilst neither protagonist was fully open to the idea that she might have misread the other, each was each pretty clear that that other had misread her!
So we had a day of story telling: each of the protagonists telling her story, (with clear ground rules preventing interruption or correction), and other members of the team invited to comment in turn.  We then set about seeking a story which all could agree covered more of the evidence we had started to assemble, and that was when we got to the story of the dour, experienced, committed professional, and the new, slightly nervous, extravert team member.
We then started to ‘thicken the plot’: that is we went back over the two years to see what evidence there was that the emerging story was a better fit than their previous personal stories: and we found lots of it. 
Somewhere along the way, there was a wonderful dawning revelation: not only is it possible for us to have a future together that works, but our past isn’t half as awful as we thought it was.  Annie and Clare experienced, among other things, huge relief, at no longer feeling so dreadfully misunderstood and also no longer feeling so hated by the other.
The final stage was to look at what evidence everybody would need to see from now onwards, to starve the old stories of evidence, and provide plenty of evidence for the new story.  That became the action plan for the team.
The power of this lay in part in the fact that everyone was convinced that the new story was a better account of what had been going on than the previous stories.  It was not a result of positive (wishful) thinking or ‘re-framing’ but of seriously engaging with the evidence each had collected - and the evidence each had overlooked. So the better future was grounded in a more positive - and also a more credible - understanding of the past.  We were not trying to make up stories or simply put a positive frame around the past, but really interrogate our understanding of it, to find a richer picture that we could all believe in  - and typically where no party is so evil and malicious as their antagonist had imagined.
Towards a Framework
I am reluctant to produce a final route map for this process, as I undertake it in a fairly intuitive way, and the sequence I used with Annie and Clare was what seemed appropriate on that particular occasion; indeed it is only with hindsight that I have pulled it into such a coherent narrative.
However, there are certain key processes that are helpful along the way, and the overall effect is often very powerful indeed.  

  • Listen to each person’s dominant story and honour it
  • Explain the way in which we build stories
  • Start to open up distance between the individual and the story; encourage externalisation
  • Invite them to name their dominant, problem-saturated or conflict-saturated story
  • Start to explore any counter-evidence
  • Consider the other person’s dominant story and its name
  • Search for alternative narratives which fit all the evidence better - and are positive
  • Thicken the plot, both historically, and from now on
Naming the story is a relatively recent addition to my approach, but it has real power.  Is it that naming forces an exaggeration? Or does it make explicit the exaggeration that’s already happening?  Either way, it does seem to help externalise the story, creating a distance between the individual and the story.  Also, it gets to the heart of the issue: why is this so important to me?  Moreover, it raises the possibility of asking:  ‘What do you think the other person’s dominant story is?’  Often people seem to imagine: ‘she comes into work to make my life hell.’ One can then ask “Is that really her story, do you think?”  Probably not...
Mike, (The Story of the Reluctant Leader) was an example of someone where the name of the story was actually the heart of the issue.  His problem essentially was his belief that he was not a good leader. I did all I could to help him loosen his grip on that story: all the evidence was against him, but that didn’t seem to count.  His idea of leadership was either heroic (Gandhi, etc) or tyrannical (his experience at work) and he was clear that he was neither.  So we eventually re-named his job as team coach.  The minute we did so, a weight was lifted from his shoulders: this was a role in which he could excel: indeed he was already doing well in it.  To strengthen this new story, we did two things.  One was to look back at the past for evidence of Mike as a good team coach - and we found plenty, including from before his promotion.  Suddenly he was able to believe that he had earned his promotion and was worthy of it!  The other was that Mike checked with his boss that she was happy with his role being team coach: she readily agreed, and Mike’s problems with team leadership have evaporated. 
Thickening the plot is a concept I learned from the field of Narrative Therapy, though the way I go about it is not  the way therapists might.  I tend to do it firstly historically, by re-visiting the past through the lens of the new positive narrative and seeing how well it accounts for all the evidence we have collected, and also seeing what new evidence we can collect that this narrative is preferable. Then I invite people to look forward, and agree how we will continue to nourish the new story (what evidence we will go out of our way to provide in support of it) and also what evidence we may need to starve the old story of, to prevent its resurgence (that is, are there any particular behaviours, or interpretations of others’ behaviours, which we will need to stop doing....)
This was particularly powerful with the protagonists in the Story of the Unpromotable Managers.  While many of them were convinced the assessment centre had not been fair, we looked at the story they needed to be able to tell back into the organisation, to get their careers moving forward again.  Part of that story clearly had to be how they had worked to overcome the shortfalls identified by the centre.  We did not need to debate how accurate the assessment was: we simply had to recognise the need to collect evidence to prove that the perceived weakness was a weakness no longer.
That led to each participant working to prove that he or she was capable of demonstrating strengths in those areas; and over the course of several months, they supported each other in developing that evidence using real work projects, and meeting as action learning sets to drive them forward and check that the learning was both applied and captured.  By the end of the series of workshops, all had a good story to tell - and the organisation heard them, so that many are now promoted.
A Story of Failure: the Offstage Character
Like any approach, this one is not a guaranteed panacea.  One failure I learned a lot from was in a social work setting, where a new manager had been appointed over a team involved in some quite creative approaches.  The senior practitioner was unhappy with the financial constraints suddenly placed upon her and her team; but that was the very job the new manager had been appointed to do.  The relationship quickly deteriorated and by the time I was asked to help, the two were not prepared to speak to each other.  The boss was also involved, and I included him in the process.  However what I failed to pick up in the early stages was the key role of an off-stage character, who used to share an office with the new manager, and who was still very influential with her.  
I managed to get all three individuals to the stage where I - and they - believed that it might be valuable to sit down in the same room and explore their stories.  However, the manager, who had shown some signs of movement and willingness to discuss by the end of our one-to-one conversation, now dug her heels in and refused to listen or to share.  I later learned that her friend and old office-mate had spent some time with her advising her not to give an inch, as the boss and the practitioner would both take a mile if she did.  Had I realised earlier the degree to which this off-stage character was actively involved in the dispute, I should have included her in the process.  In the event, we got nowhere, and the two people who had been prepared to move a little felt very bruised and abused.  The manager was eventually re-assigned to another area: most organisations’ default response to difficult relationship issues.
Some theoretical links
For a blind hog, I read quite a lot, and it may be that I have plagiarised more than I realise in putting this together,  However, the influences of which I am conscious include these.  There has been a lot written about the stories leaders tell to galvanise the troops, (Stephen Denning, ‘Telling Tales’, HBR May ’04; Bob McKee ‘Storytelling that Moves People,’ HBR June ’03).  
NLP (Neuro Lingusitc Programming: see Frogs into Princes or The Structure of Magic, Bandler and Grinder ) is also interested in how we make sense of the world, and is, I understand, the origin of the mantra ‘the map is not the territory.’  However, NLP seems to me to focus on techniques such as re-framing which essentially involve putting on rose-tinted glasses.
Eric Berne’s work on Transactional Analysis (Games People Play) has long interested me, and there are resonances in my approach with his understanding of life scripts.  However, I believe that what I am working with, though it may emanate in part from such deep sources, is closer to the surface and a lot easier to help people change.
The closest link I have found, and for this I am grateful to Liz Todd at Newcastle University who drew my attention to it, is narrative therapy and narrative mediation.  This is a field pioneered by the late Michael White (see, for example, Maps of Narrative Practice).  Reading texts in that context (eg Narrative Mediation, Winslade & Monk; What is Narrative Therapy?, Alice Morgan) made me wonder if I had discovered anything new at all - and eventually dispelled the illusion that I had.  
However, what I had done was rediscover, from experience, what others were discovering in a very different field, and it is the application of that to the organisational context which is perhaps my original contribution (though even here my story may be wildly inaccurate: and this article is, in part, designed to provoke a response to that assertion so that I can enrich my story).  I have certainly learned from that work, particularly with regard to ‘thickening the plot.’  I was heartened to read of the importance which practitioners of narrative approaches place on the re-kindling of hope. For some years, I have believed that one of my key skills is to help people re-discover hope in times of adversity.
Where I part company with the published work on narrative mediation and narrative therapy which I have read so far, is in the belief (or their story) that this pre-supposes a post-modern view of reality, and the absence of any objective truth.  I happen to believe in objective truth - but also recognise it is a very hard thing to verify, and a risky one to claim sole insight to.  Indeed it is because of my belief in, and respect for, objective reality, that I am so quick to recognise the multiple subjectivities to which I and everyone else lend temporary credence. 
Underpinning all of this is a fundamental orientation in my work which has been there since I first read Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search For Meaning) and was strengthened when feedback from clients kept repeating to me that what I did for them was help them to rekindle hope. There is a deep connection between meaning and hope, in my view; and that brings me to my most fundamental source of all: ‘these three remain: faith, hope and love.’  My tentative position at this stage is that working with people on richer and more positive meanings in their lives, and helping them rediscover hope for the future also enables them better to love themselves and others - with enormously powerful benefits, both at work and beyond.
At this stage of the article, only one question remains which I can answer:
Why in Praise of Pride and Prejudice? 
Not because pride and prejudice are considered good - in fact they are often the drivers behind unhelpful narratives - but rather because Jane Austen’s novel and the films made from it, exemplify how readily we can get the wrong end of the stick and then tenaciously interpret reality in a prejudicial way very convincingly, and also how discovering a better and truer narrative can let us all live happily ever after.


  1. Thanks for a fascinating piece... I'm currently adding a narrative approach to my NLP work so it was very relevant.
    I think this approach has a lot to offer. Your list of key processes is close to the principles I apply with an NLP / coaching context. (I didn't take the 'rose tinted reframing' too seriously).
    We all operate within a web of interwoven, interactive stories and the more insight we can gain the more we can observe from selected perspectives, create opportunities for greater flexibility, and experience possibilities and freedoms.
    I find the post-modern perspective intriguing but haven't ruled out the possibility of 'objective truth'.
    It's a fascinating line of enquiry and I look forwrd to future posts.

  2. Hi Andrew,
    Thank you for a very fulsome and interesting post which I need to digest. I think you have articulated these narrative processes beautifully. Thanks again.

  3. Briefly - The Narrative Therapy of Michael White and others who worked alongside him is predicated on a post modern approach to understanding, people, problems and possibilities.The role of the therapist is to give up any authority, expertise or sense of knowing what is right or true for the person who owns the story, otherwise the power imbalance between "client" and "therapist" is maintained. It is not possible to both hold the belief that there are objective truths "out there" and practice what Michael White advocated. Externalising is not a technique is is an entire epistemology. This world view is not the same as NLP as it is not psychological - not based on internal model e.g parts, it is philosophical (ontological) and has an understanding that problems are sourced in language, power and knowledge ... who controls the dominant discourses of the day - political, economic, social and cultural ... in other words who gets to say what is truth ... if these aspects or not included in the approach or in the conversations we can only say that the practice is drawing on some of the thinking of Michael White and his associates but is not really it.

  4. Sali & Grace thanks for your comments - glad you found the piece interesting. I included the rose-tinted comment simply because it is something I have come across in some NLPers, and because I prefer spikey writing to bland...

    Mo: you are of course quite right: I do not claim to be following Michael White for precisely the reasons you articulate. I think he did something very rich in practice, but I do not share his philosophical starting point, as I hope I made clear. Rather I have found parallels between what he did and what I have developed, and I have learned from approaches he took and incorporated them into my practice.

    Likewise I am not a therapist, though I do believe that any effective coach is likely to use interventions that have a therapeutic effect, so the boundaries are not always as clear as one might imagine.

    Finally, to say I believe in objective truth is not to say I have a better insight into it than my client. They are far more likely to be closer to it about them and their situation than I am, so I do not think that philosophical starting point implies an imbalance in the power relationship between us.