CitationDownload as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: Introduction From: Journal of Organizational Change Management, Volume 21, Issue 5
This issue of JOCM provides a critical discussion of storytelling. Storytelling has often been portrayed as inherently critical – as if the stories of organizational participants are intrinsically authentic and authenticity is innately ethically superior. But is this so?
A typical story:
Hospital doctors are asked to relate an incident that represents exceptional care for them. A specialist tells:
I was on weekend night duty. It was the normal disaster – far too many emergencies, lots of winos and junkies. A few fight victims, some car accident victims. To many teenage gang punks were just hanging around. We had got everyone a bit bedded down and it was a starting to become quiet, when a pregnant woman came in complaining of belly pains and afraid she was losing her child. We just did not know what to think, but we did not want to leave her with all the chaos of the down-and-outs, or in doubt until Monday. We decided to take her up stairs for a scan, but there were no brothers to be found anywhere. They were probably all off somewhere for a smoke as the din had temporarily subsided. So we wheeled her ourselves into the lift and took her up-stairs. But of course, there were no technicians around. So we broke into the scan facility and made the scan. Luckily there was nothing seriously wrong with her and she, after a bit more than an hour in the hospital, could go home.
This story was told to illustrate really good care. The doctors showed involvement and commitment to their patient. They were willing to take initiative (wheel the woman themselves into the lift) and to break rules (break open the scan facility) to help the patient. The woman obviously was more important than the rules. But there is a reverse side to this coin. The pregnant woman was helped at the cost of the other patients. They were left alone in the emergency room, more or less to fend for themselves. The ethic of care was served vis-à-vis the woman but not in regards to the poor and abject. The socially unattractive, economically weak and marginalized had no voice. But, the story was not told as an illustration of inequality or class justice, but as an illustration of care. In the story, a middle class pregnant woman, is worth carrying for, while punks, alcoholics and the marginal do not have to be seen and can be (temporarily) ignored. The doctors are heroes for caring for their own social equals.
Stories make sense for actors and circumstances. But, sense-making is not inherently good. As Cheryl Lapp and Adrian Carr understand, unconscious drives, fears, projections and destructive forces are on the lure. Stories may meet the storytellers’ psychic needs, but there is no assurance that these are deeply ethical or desirable. Storytellers, or perhaps better storysellers, may want confirmation from us for wishes that are deeply manipulative and undesirable. Storytelling/storyselling may not favor the subaltern at all, but can do more social harm than good. Storytelling/-selling is persuasive manipulation, which in its narrative power, may diminish individual responsibility. Stories appeal often to the unreflexive acceptance of their messages, which depth psychology teaches us is a dangerous move.
David Vickers continues with the theme of hegemony and whether stories come from on-high or from below, and what significance this might have. Are senior management’s stories, more hegemonic or faulty than those of middle management? Storytelling is often associated with the legitimating of alternative sense-making, and its political praxis is then identified with multivocality and bottom-up truth. Vickers recounts middle management antenarratives in an acquisition, where he is convinced that often excluded voices are thereby heard that would otherwise be barred. Middle managers divert or alter strategy with their narrative sense-making, whereby the hegemonic version of control and strategy is complexified. Middle management may have delayed redundancies and gotten more investment for their plant, but why was this a good thing? Vickers shows a bottom-up versus top-down struggle, but the question of who “was right” and “why” really remains unresolved.
Ruth Steuer and Thomas Wood also describe efforts to achieve legitimacy in an acquisition. But this time the data all came from senior managers and is focused on “cultural hybridization.” In a globalized business world, managers find themselves working for different nationalities, owners and values all the time. One can have the same job, but still in a very few years be in very different contexts, as in the case described. Managers are forced to develop discursive strategies to make sense for themselves of their very rapidly changing circumstances. Under the official discourse or the so-called text of senior management, it is argued, there is considerable variation and flexibility. Management story-telling is represented as guiding sense-making, but as much looser and supportive than in the other articles in this special number. The supplied sense-making is a resource for individual change and adaptation.
Yannick Fronda and Jean-Luc Moriceau study a take-over from within – it is still the same organization but its ownership has changed, and its values have been put under pressure to change. Top management tries to sell an American inspired financial management concept to a French organization. The management controllers, who explicitly had lots to gain from this change, did not buy into the new tropes. Open resistance or explicit antenarratives are weak; opposition is by “discreet resistance.” In this study, the differentiation between three regimes is investigated: that of:
industry or engineering;
civic society or public responsibility; and
The first remained a somewhat undercover point of reference, but concern for the second world really had been marginalized. The rhetoric of being commercially oriented had triumphed. But value confusion, a sense of performative dissonance and anomie, resulted. The market story dominated, but the subjects suffered.
Musacchio Adorisio continues to stress the need to differentiate between text and persons and not to let analysis of the latter dominate. Narrating or storytelling is very different from story analysis or narrative studies. Storytelling is a practice. Letting the “we” mode dominate, causes one to loose contact with storytelling, which is an “I” activity. “I” activity is tentative, exploratory, and rough. “We” is much more structured. Adorisio refuses to choose between the two. Objectified “we” storytelling is needed to create order, rules, structure and to make collective identity possible. But life’s indeterminacies and dynamism often resembles the rough or “I” approach.
Matthew Eriksen presents an autoethnographic account. Here, the story collector is much more deeply implicated in the discussion. The pretension of researcher neutrality is abandoned – the storyteller is partial, embedded and committed. Self-reflection or reflexivity takes center stage – storytelling is no longer about making “their” voice heard, but about “our” relationships. Narrative is no longer text “about,” but attempts to be text “from” within. Rather than write about emancipatory antenarrative, Eriksen investigates his own speech and finds uncomfortable contradictions between his professed goals and some of his actions. This is narrative or storytelling as complex signification wherein (self-)contradiction and the discomfort of ethical investigation, is directly feel-able. Eriksen used journal writing as (self-)exploration; reflexivity either of who you address, or of yourself, is the form of “storytelling” explored. The emphasis is on personal knowing as the foundation to leadership, either of those addressed (here the coast guard cadets) or of the researcher.
Finally, Hugo Letiche, Robert v Boeschoten and Frank de Jong, investigated journal writing as a storytelling strategy of self-change. They wrestle with the differences between:
formal, top-down bureaucratic text;
practitioner or activity based action; and
personal or immediate expression.
The first they call “language,” the second “discourse,” and the third “parole.” They identify these with the debate around Mode 1 (scientific) knowledge, Mode 2 (practitioner knowledge), and Mode 3 normative and situational knowing. The normative professionalism of Mode 3 was inspiring and highly valued in the workplace, but feared by management, and in the case described eventually repressed. Hyper-real organization has no place for the authentic, personal or internalized. People in organization may scream for stories that respect “self” in relationship, but this does not mean that such story-telling will be sanctioned.
In this number of JOCM, the choice for immediacy, direct involvement, and authenticity via story-telling is repeatedly introduced, but the authors question the epistemological possibility of achieving any such thing, as well as the social barriers to its realization. The ideal of story-telling is still there, but the confidence that sense-making via stories can achieve the (assumed) goals, is severely doubted.
Hugo Letiche, Robert v Boeschoten and Sanjev DugalGuest Editors