Life at Work: What's Your Story?

by Jean Marie Johnson

Did I tell you about ...? Remember that time when ...? You won't believe this but ... So this woman called and said ...

You are listening, right? That's because I am about to tell you a story, and everyone loves a good one. Of course, you don't know where mine might go, but there's a heartbeat in my words—we've already made a connection through the mere suggestion of a story.

When we think about work and about business, we don't typically think about storytelling. We think about giving and receiving information, facts and data. We think about where we are in relation to standards, goals and targets, as in:

  • "Our service level last month was 96 percent, a .5% increase over the previous month, netting us an average year-to-date gain of .3%. Our ATT was 221 seconds and AHT came in at 298 seconds.
  • Nice job, guys. Any questions?"
 And your mind bubble reads: No, I guess that pretty much sums it up.

In fairness, facts and data are indispensable to life at work because they provide us with a measure of our progress, effectiveness, and success. But by themselves, they leave us wanting; for us, there is so much more to the story.  

The Compelling Nature of Stories

What is it about stories that make them so compelling? Why do we seem to need to tell them? In the article "Our Stories, Ourselves," published in Monitor, a publication of the American Psychological Association, Sadie F. Dingfelder writes:

  • "The tales we tell hold powerful sway over our memories, behaviors and even identities ... we don't just tell stories, stories tell us. They shape our thoughts and memories, and even change how we live our lives."

Think back to any time in your life, and you will find a story with a heartbeat. And not just any story, according to John Holmes, PhD, a psychology professor at Waterloo University:   

  • "For better or worse, stories are a very powerful source of self-persuasion, and they are highly internally consistent ... evidence that doesn't fit the story is going to be left behind."

So let's say that you are a self-proclaimed animal lover. You delight in telling people stories about how you collected wild frogs in your backyard when you were three, paraded your mutt in the vain hope of winning "Best Dressed" when you were ten, and have rescued stray cats ever since. But you might just leave out the part about how, on a dare, you flushed the fish down the toilet ... because it doesn't quite fit with the narrative.  John Holmes explains:

  • "Storytelling isn't just how we construct our identities, stories are our identities."
And that is the clue to the other half of our story at work.

Putting Stories to Work

Organizations don't just spout out numbers and hope that they will suffice in aligning us or inspiring us to action. They tell at least three different types of stories that draw us in with a heartbeat that goes beyond facts and figures. And there is one more story going on at work. It's a story with an utterly unique heartbeat: yours.

  • Legacy Stories help us to identify with an organization's founder or a company's deep roots. A legacy story makes us feel that we are part of a living history and that we are contributing to future chapters. This story might center on a founder who, while building a multi-million dollar insurance practice, carried his peanut butter and jelly sandwich to the office every day in a brown paper bag. Or, it may describe a mom and pop diner that never forgot its roots, establishing a tradition of community service and giving-back.
  • Purpose and Vision Stories inspire us by providing a "why" behind the numbers we produce. They elevate what we do by making it matter. Purpose and vision stories connect us to a larger reason for being such as protecting health, enhancing well-being, promoting happiness or ensuring the rights of others. These stories compel us to contribute to a greater good.
  • Teaching Stories instruct us by recounting experiences or situations that illustrate a company's purpose, vision or values as they are lived by employees like you and me. These stories reflect who we are and what we stand for. They demonstrate our values in action, revealing our humanity and our humility, and speak to our courage in the face of adversity.
And there is one more story going on at work. It's a story with an utterly unique heartbeat: yours.

130 Stories, Plus One

In 1974, Studs Terkel released a seminal book entitled Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Studs, aka Louis Terkel (there's a story there), interviewed 130 people chronicling and honoring their stories. Search "Terkel" and you will find these compelling narratives of work, life, and meaning. There's a heartbeat in every one.

Ours are no different. Each of us has a personal narrative, a story we tell ourselves about our work, the peaks and pits, the ditches and detours, the road not taken, the roller coaster, the ladder, the ceiling, the pasture, and even "the zone." And somewhere in all of these is the heartbeat that sustained the effort and made it matter.

I have a story. My random list of prior occupations includes: housekeeper, Avon Lady, Mary Kay consultant, English tutor, babysitter, and receptionist. But that's not my story. Neither is being an organizational consultant. While it is informed by all of this and more, my story is about dignifying the human experience, regardless of circumstance, status or task. That may sound lofty, but the lived experience behind it couldn't be more grounded. It's this clarity that fuels my actions and sustains my effort. Even now.

Author, Editor, Meaning-Maker

I'll be blunt and simply ask: What's your story?

The story that you tell yourself about your work influences your memories, your choices, how you act and even how you see yourself. That's no small matter. However you frame it, you are the author, the editor, the meaning-maker. When you can tell yourself your story, you make sense of your experience in a way that matters to you. It is that powerful.

Here are a few "ask yourself" ideas for getting at the heartbeat of your story:

  • 1.  What is the consistent thread that weaves through my work experience? Think in terms of a passion or a quality that you have brought to every work experience. This may be top of mind for you. If not, think about feedback you've received over time. You may find that thread in the echo of what others have seen in you. For me, that "thread" is a compelling desire to make more of what is, to make "it" better.
  • 2.  What do I contribute that means the most to me? You may find that what first comes to mind are your key responsibilities or accomplishments, those that relate specifically to your role or job description. But what you may feel most deeply about may be something else entirely. For example, I know a phenomenal editor. She makes other people look good in print and online. But what matters most to her is that she continues to build a motley crew of talented people who work well together. She has a gift and a passion for collaboration.
  • 3.  What story within my story is the one I can't wait to tell? It's the one that usually begins with "Did I ever tell you about the time I ...?" This anecdote matters to you because it says something—or a great deal—about you. It could speak to any quality, such as your courage under fire, your unfailing ability to see the good in all situations, your ability to make others laugh, or how you learned to believe in yourself. A family member didn't believe that he was "leadership material." He tells of the time he sat with a mentor who asked him to recount all of his "people- accomplishments," however small. Once he did, he saw himself differently, and that changed the larger story he told himself. In time, he went on to lead others.
  • 4.  What values do I rely on at work, day by day? It can be helpful to think about difficult or challenging work situations that you handled and feel particularly good about. This story within your story is likely to reveal the values you relied on, those that matter most to you. An IT professional told the story of a customer who thanked him for resolving a very complex technical issue. At the end of the long call, she told him how much she appreciated the respect he showed her throughout. He explained that for him, expertise without respect wasn't in his wheelhouse.

Wherever you are right now in your life and in your work, I hope that you write a good story: one that celebrates and affirms what you've done, what you do, and who you are. Go with the heartbeat. Do it for you.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
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