Stories Make Your Values Stick

By Brett Beasley

When it comes to building character and ethical cultures, stories aren't entertainment. They are essential.

Life Story
[Note: This article is the second part in a series on "moral imagination." Part one is here. Stay tuned for part three.]

How would you describe your organization and your leadership? You might use terms like data-driven or results-driven. But what about story-driven?

If not, you may be missing out on some potential benefits to yourself and your organization. Research suggests that when it comes to the important task of instilling and living values, stories should be the centerpiece of your strategy.

Stories and Culture

Organizations of all kinds struggle to build and maintain an organizational culture that puts ethics first. As Deloitte CEO Joe Ucuzoglu recently put it, culture "is one of those areas where you can never declare victory." After all, an organization's culture depends upon its people. As employees leave an organization and new hires come on board, there is a constant need to instill a clear sense of "how we do things around here."

Recent research suggests that stories are a uniquely powerful way to integrate ethics into the onboarding process. Sean Martin (UVA) made this discovery while he was studying the Asian technology firm ITECH. Martin organized sessions where team members from the organization would share specific types of stories with new hires.

The stories featured one of two types of characters: either leaders in the organization or low level employees. Additionally, there were two types of plots: the character either upheld or violated the organization's values. Martin was then able to follow employees from each group over time. He gathered data on the employees' subsequent helping behaviors and unethical actions to determine if the stories had any tangible effects.

Martin's main finding was simple: Stories about values are incredibly valuable. The use of stories had a tremendous impact that showed up in employees' behaviors.

Martin also discovered that some stories about values are more valuable than others. Stories about leaders doing the right thing helped new hires learn about the values the organization espouses. But the stories about low-level employees played a bigger role in shaping new hires' actual behaviors. This was largely because new hires identified with lower-level employees—people more like them—than with executives.

Stories and Character

"People create stories create people; or rather, stories create people create stories" —Chinua Achebe

It's not just culture—research also suggests that stories are indispensable for shaping individual character as well. Many scholars now insist we should understand our moral lives in terms of a story (or "narrative").

One of the first and most influential scholars to make this claim was Notre Dame moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. In his 1981 study After Virtue, MacIntyre claimed that a human being is "essentially a story-telling animal." To live a moral life, he argued, we have to think about our life as a whole. Thinking of it as a constantly evolving story provides a way to do that. For MacIntyre, to live with integrity and responsibility is to author a particular kind of life story—one with a coherent and integrated past, present, and future.

To test claims like MacIntyre's, Dan McAdams (Northwestern) has collected thousands of life stories and has found that people who live what psychologists call "generative" rather than stagnant lives do, in fact, tend to see their lives as a particular kind of grand story and not just a series of loosely connected episodes. As McAdams and his colleagues began studying the way highly generative people "author" their life narratives, they began to notice that common elements emerged. Eventually, they were able to assemble what they call "a narrative prototype for the generative life." Highly generative people tended to include these five themes in their stories:

  1. They experienced some early advantage in life that made them want to help the less fortunate.
  2. They developed sensitivity to oppression, inequality, or some other form of suffering.
  3. They were given a strong moral framework to live by.
  4. They experienced negative events and sought to transform them into positive ones.
  5. The aimed to improve others' lives or society as a whole.

Put it In Practice

Don't just state values. Share stories. Too often, organizations assume that a statement of corporate values is the best or perhaps even the only way to speak about their values. But research suggests that these statements often fail to shape behavior because they are too abstract and too general. By stocking up on stories of real people who live your organization's values, you can close the gap between ideals and actions.

Be strategic about storytelling. Not every moment in the life of an organization calls for a story. Research suggests that during moments of transition, uncertainty, and upheaval, stories can help provide stability and foster resilience. Research also points to ethics courses and training sessions as an opportunity to tell and analyze rich stories about ethics. When designing these sessions, it is crucial to look for stories not just from senior leaders in an organization but also from employees that students or trainees can identify with.

Know your story and tell it. To build a story-driven organization, start by becoming story-driven yourself. Research suggests we should spend time reflecting on our lives as a whole or as a coherent and integrated story. But don't keep your story to yourself. Monisha Pasupathi and Tim Hoyt have found that active, engaged listeners can help us delve deeper into our memories and experiences. This suggests other people can play a role in helping us "author" a clearer and richer version of our life story.

Everyone likes a leader who can tell a good story to inject life into a meeting or provide a clear, colorful example. But research shows that stories are valuable for much more than entertainment and clarification—especially stories about values. The road to moral character and an ethical culture runs through the imagination. And stories may well be the most powerful vehicle we have for traveling it.

Stay tuned for our next installment, which will explore practical ways we can cultivate moral imagination.

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