Sunday, December 7, 2014

Connecting the Individual Narrative Arcs of a Geographically-Distributed Workforce


“We are narrators of our self-stories, constructing plots or story lines that integrate and give meaning to all the critical events that have been part of our existence” (Polkinghorne, 1991, p. 146). Each of us has a unique story. No two stories are the same. Yet, there may be many common elements to our collective stories. In this paper, I want to explore the development of self-concept and the shaping of a personal story and narrative arc.  Self-concept need not be solely about ourselves, but can be extended to include others such as family members, teammates, colleagues, and communities (Polkinghorne, 1991).  In a shared self-concept setting such as this, our personal stories or narrative arcs link to the stories and narrative arcs of others in important groups.  Such is the case for organizations and companies with brands that have strong narrative arcs and that share common social representations. These representations are connected to symbols, rituals, objects and language, perpetuated by communication and stories within groups or cultures (Moscovici, 1988). Linkage of a personal narrative arc to a larger brand arc occurs through the use of social representations as transferred through meta-narratives.  These meta-narratives are the stories of groups (organizations and companies, in this case) confronting problems and obstacles, appointing heroes, and eventually overcoming to achieve extraordinary goals.

Anthropologists have long been interested in the stories in cultures and groups, and what they reveal about the similarities and differences among people groups (McAdams, 2001). In this vein, I will investigate the establishment of stories inherent in strong brands and the meta- narrative arc to which customers and employees identify and attach their own personal story or narrative arc.  I will also highlight the role of leadership in finding or establishing those points of intersection between the narrative arcs of employees in a geographically-distributed workforce, and the meta-narrative arc of the brand for which they work. I’d like to conclude by addressing Polkinghorne’s (1991) assertion that we are not authors of our self-stories but rather narrators, in the context of how I use story in a professional setting. In light of the choices of group membership, the acceptance of its social representations, and the connection of personal story arc to the larger brand or team narrative arc, I believe that we have opportunities every day to become the authors of our own narrative.   

The Development of Self-Concept

Polkinghorne (1991) maintains that the story of a person’s own self is key to providing meaning and identity. Their story is constructed, mostly in retrospect, by editing, organizing, and arranging the events of their life into an integrated and meaningful whole.  This integrated whole is Gestalt-like in its assembly, unable to be separated into parts.  These events and experiences are arranged on plot lines. Polkinghorne (1991) asserts that these plot lines are not dreamed up or made from scratch. There are many sources of these plot lines, but whether they come to us from the Classics, from mythology, from canonical documents of faith systems, from the Master works of European origin, or from modern movies, shows and literature, they come to us through our mediated existence. 

The plot lines running through these works become our book of “stock plots” from which we choose to craft our own plot line.  The events and experiences are used by us to discern a plot line from stock plots which can unify and integrate the parts.  One’s identity is derived from the plot line with the events and experiences attached to it to form the narrative arc of one’s life story.  Bruner (2004) maintains that what is ommitted from the narrative of one’s self is just as important as what is included.  As such the process of story-making is a continuous and iterative process as one encounters new experiences and events.  “Life happens”, however, and as the plot line begins to disintegrate, people can reach a crisis of identity (Polkinghorne, 1991) if they don’t recognize that story-making is life-long pursuit, and take the initiative to re-imagine their future, and refashion a plot line that integrates their lives and their view of self (McAdams, 2001).   

Self-Concept That Include Others

From childhood, an understanding of one’s own identity comes from identifying with, acting like, and being accepted by a group – family, classmates, social group, colleagues, teammates and co-workers, for instance (Grusec et al, 2013) . These groups are formed around social representations; commonly-held standards, symbols, beliefs, aspirations, language, rituals, and the like. Co-workers constitute a group of people who build relationships and bond together around the social representations of the companies they work for and the brands they represent. Polkinghorne (1991) asserts that life stories need not be self-centered, but the role of the protagonist can be more inclusive, adopting a “we” in place of an “I”.  This is especially true of people groups in close connection with each other.  Family members, teammates, co-workers (in a close working environment), and social organizations can each serve to be integral partners in the defining role of protagonist in a person’s narrative arc.

This concept of an extended view of protagonist is especially important for people groups where the group’s image, brand, ranking, record or even survival are dependent on meeting goals and objectives.  The most obvious example of this is what professional sports teams experience in getting to the playoffs and eventually to the title game.  Teams who have a player or two who insist on establishing a personal brand that is counter to or incongruous with the brand or values of the team, generally cannot get past the regular season. Teams that win together are careful to note that the players on the team pulled together and won together.  It is never about an individual, but about the team.  In essence, team members are all willing to subjugate their own (narcissistic) desires to those of the team, choosing to let their personal stories be part of the larger, team meta-narrative.  This kind of team is the ultimate example of how a personal story can be connected to a larger narrative arc that includes others.

Brand Narratives and Shared Social Representations

While personal narrative arcs are personal arrangements and construction of events and experiences, some of which we have no control over, like literary narrative arcs, brand arcs have a simple, single plot, incorporating only those elements that reinforce the narrative arc. (The fundamental difference between literary arcs and brand arcs is that literary narrative arcs are fixed, where brand arcs can shift and change over time. The mark of a strong brand is one that does not need to shift often in order to compensate for some deficit in the marketplace.)   Strong brand narratives are built on transcendental values, symbols, and disciplined processes (rituals). Moscovici (1988) articulates these as social representations, and their power to align actions and behaviors in an organization is proportional to the stories which pass them along among employees and from generation to generation. Brands which lack clear values, symbols and rituals struggle to find their identity in the marketplace.  Brand identity, like one’s self-identity is tied to a plot line and narrative that constitutes and integrates a story. 

For strong brands, this identity defines the brand in its uniqueness; it is something that is directional and aspirational, but does not acknowledge the competition. Weaker brands, however, often try to strengthen their market identity by comparing themselves to the competition, a move that ends up being a fool’s errand.  Consumers want to buy uniqueness (the heuristic cue of exclusivity); they don’t want to buy from companies and brands they perceive as weak in a competitive market.

The Role of the Leader in Connecting Narrative Arcs

Social representations are both performative and constructive (Moscovici, 1988).  They are performative in the sense that by being shared, they create an expectation for behavior or an obligation to present one’s self in certain ways that comport with the representation.  This is true of leaders who display charisma and act in ways consistent with the values and symbols of the organization they represent.  Social representations are constructive in the sense that they relate or link people and symbols to the shared concepts of the group.  These shared concepts are used to create a world of reality for the group which provides the context for the organization and assembly of events and experiences in constructing a narrative arc.

            The question becomes: How does a leader get all these disparate narrative arcs to connect?  Transformational leaders motivate us to transcend our own self-interests (Bass, 1985).  These types of leaders get us to extend belief in the organization and its goals, symbols, and rituals, or ceremonies, as a result of the belief and confidence we have in the leader.  Polkinghorne (1991) recognizes this as moving from a narcissistic narrative to an extended narrative that includes others.  This makes the leader’s role in the organization to be the one who connects the members of the group to the brand, and the brand’s narrative arc.  In a geographically-distributed workforce, the leader must transfer these values, beliefs, and actions to other managers across the organization, ensuring there is consistency of leader action and resulting leader confidence.

            Spatial and psychological distance in a geographically-distributed workforce has the potential to challenge feelings of trust and confidence in the group and its leaders. It even challenges group membership and employees’ sense of attachment to the team’s goals or even the company’s goals. (Morgan & Symon, 2002).  In this environment, managers’ engagement and communications skills are vital to maintaining employee attachment to corporate values, goals, symbols, and rituals (processes and ceremonies). 

            We can now see that the ability of employees – especially in a geographically-distributed workforce – to attach to the brand values and symbols of the group or company is directly related to leadership’s ability to be engaged, to model the correct actions and behaviors, to communicate clearly and simply, and to extend confidence and trust. In exercising the responsibility to communicate clearly and simply, I would argue that a leader is most effective in getting people to act through the use of story which connects the collective individual narrative arcs to the plot line and narrative arc of the brand.     

Connecting to a Brand

Professionally, I use story to help align some element of individual personal stories to the brand meta-narrative of the company that I and my fellow employees work for. In a large telecommunications company with a geographically-distributed work force, like the one I work for, it’s highly important that all employees somehow connect to the brand. Our brains don’t like dissonance (Tedeschi, Schlenker, & Bonoma, 1957) and so when there’s nothing in the brand narrative that we can connect to and include in our own identity we become employees that negatively affect the entire team. I teach my management team how to use story to engage with their respective teams – whether they are dealing with a team of managers or a team of technicians.  It’s important to get everyone to tell their story. Then we look for or listen for opportunities to make associations between an employee’s story (past, present or future) and what our brand means to customers. In this way, the employee gets to see that they (and their respective stories) matter to customers and their teammates. (It’s also important to stress how important customers are to our jobs, and since everyone likes having a job, having satisfied customers is an appropriate outcome for any story.)

McAdams (2001) asserts, our stories are carefully arranged and edited events of our lives to be a self that has acceptance by a group, or that is headed in a particular direction (from a career and life perspective).  In this vein, getting technicians to be a protagonist or a “hero” of sorts in the brand narrative, they also adopt and organize the same protagonist or hero qualities into their respective personal narratives.   This makes a successful future for the company comport with a successful future for each technician, as well.  Narrative connections of this quality takes a management team that is highly-engaged and getting their respective teams to talk about their events and encounters – their stories – within their daily jobs.  We provide and encourage opportunities for technicians to stand in front of their peers and relate an experience or an event.  Whether a customer encounter, a quality installation, or a near-miss potential accident that was avoided, key behaviors from the week articulated in story form are helpful in allowing team members to connect their behaviors to the narrative arc of the group, or choose to change their behaviors to connect with the narrative arc of the group.

The process is modeled layer after layer in the management team, and practiced every week.  Recognizing that some are better at this than others, I spend a lot of personal time wandering around the service area (the entire Midwest) listening for how well we’re doing, modeling the behavior and helping people practice in getting better. The process I model goes something like this:

When I start a meeting with first-line managers, I have everyone introduce themselves to me as if for the first time.  This is done in a group setting, with their peers listening.  The groups are generally no larger than 10-15 people (at the field level, teams consist of no more than fifteen technicians). In the process of introducing themselves, I ask everyone to tell me their “story”. I don’t make a distinction between their professional story and their personal story. Some ask for a clarification, but my response is always that it doesn’t matter.  Invariably, I get a mixture of personal and professional in the story, as they get 2 minutes to tell it.  Additionally, they have to give one factoid about themselves that none else knows. For some it’s a bit uncomfortable, but once someone is brave enough to give a fact that blows the rest of the team away, all of a sudden, it becomes okay to be “real”.   After everyone in the group has introduced themselves, told their quick story, and given one factoid about themselves, I ask if anyone wants to know something about me that none of them know (my personal profile and a brief bio are posted on our company website, so it’s difficult to find things that no one else knows, but I generally give them something from my personal life).

Once the process is completed, we have a conversation about how each person on the team articulated some point of connection with the company we work for. Many times, if not most times, people came to work for the company as a result of dilemma or at least decision point where they found themselves at a “Y” in the road. 

Almost all the time, they were the hero in their own story.  I then point out, very simply, what makes a good story using the major elements of protagonist, dilemma or problem, hero, and resolution (Ohler, 2013). We then talk about what makes up the brand of the company we all work for; what makes the narrative to our brand story, and who the heroes are.  Everyone in the meeting realizes that there is connection to our company and its brand narrative within their own life story.  Secondly, there comes a realization that they are connected to each, and the success of our company and its brand is dependent on their success as a team.  They now have a responsibility to each other as they build a team narrative together. Team narratives are a bit trickier, but I look at them this way.  Every team wants to win, and winning takes a team.  We measure and rank teams (at the manager level) all across the country, and every team aspires to finish at or near the top. Once a team will admit and recognize their current position, and their obstacles and their opportunities, they set goals to overcome and succeed in key areas. They, as teammates, must become the heroes in their team’s narrative, holding each other accountable and helping each other get better and achieve a different outcome.

There are two reasons for going through this process.  The first is that empirical evidence suggests that Kahneman (2011) was right when he asserted that the brain is lazy and will answer the easiest question. With a difficult question, unless one is given the time and the tools to do a complex operation, the brain will answer a related, but easier-to-answer question. Having people think through their edited life stories to tell a factoid about themselves, and then their team narrative, makes the brain engage in this complex team-building exercise.  I can help them with which steps to do and in which order, but only if their brains are fully-engaged, and they are willing to become committed to helping each other win.

The second reason we go through the exercise is so that I can model for them how to get people to tell their stories and then listen for the intersections to the team narrative or the brand narrative.  We don’t hire managers because they have PhDs in psychology: we hire them because they are really good technicians and know what it takes to do to quality work efficiently.  This is a process that gets repeated over and over again: we talk about it in kickoff meetings; I wander around the service area listening and helping people get it right; I ask others who are doing it well, to tell their stories and share their own experience in getting better at team-building with stories; and I get managers to talk about their own “a-ha!” moment, when they knew they got it right.

Each step along the way, people are making a decision to get more connected to the brand narrative, or to depart from it, eventually to find a job elsewhere.  It is this choice, even if not spoken, that leads me to believe that contrary to Polkinghorne’s (1991) assertion, we are authors of our own narrative.  We choose every day, to do things that reinforce our personal brand and the linkage we have with the company brand, or to erode our personal brand and the connection we have with our company brand.  Each decision ends up providing a choice between two very different narratives.  The events that unfold on the heels of those choices, we can edit and arrange to our liking, in order to create a narrative of our liking and put ourselves in the best light possible (McAdams, 2001; Polkinghorne, 1991).  However, many times in a given day, for a brief moment, we have an opportunity to author our own narrative.  My goal, as the leader is to get them to keep their brains engaged and to think though the personal and professional consequences of choosing their narrative.


Stories are powerful motivators.  “A credible idea makes people believe.  An emotional idea makes people care.  But the right stories make people act” (Heath & Heath, 2007).  As motivators to action, stories also become the change-agents in organizations. Action is a necessary element of behavior change, and as Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, & Switzler (2008) have shown, if we want to change outcomes, we must first change behaviors. Many times we miss this simple fact in trying to change behaviors in order to change outcomes in an organization.  People are in perpetual story-construction mode, selecting, editing and arranging the events of our lives into an integrated whole with meaning and direction (Polkinghorne, 1991).  The role of leaders who are team-builders is to uncover these personal narratives and find the connections with the team narrative and the company brand narrative.  Here, a meta-narrative is woven where the collective concept of self includes the well-being and success of not only one’s self, but the team and teammates, as well.  There is probably no greater task in the arsenal of leadership behaviors, than to get the team, whether a group of technicians or a team of senior managers, to effectively use stories to communicate the need for change, the way of change, and the ultimate effects of change.  


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