Organizational Story for Learning, and Behavioral Change

By Tom Sparough

There are an unlimited amount of stories that could be useful on an organizational level. But, still, the every day worker today doesn’t see the benefit of stories.

In my NSN conference workshop, entitled “Generative Organizational Story: Opening the Borders Between Us and Them,” we will explore some of the benefits of storytelling, but in a focused way.

Generative story is an illustrative story that can lead to learning, understanding and behavioral changes. One could say that this could be the outcome of any story. But in this iteration of “generative,” we tell stories that are not directly related to the teller or the listener. In other words, we are eliminating personal stories.

Personal stories are a great way to share insights and teachings on the organizational level, but when we are trying to bridge the gap between us and them, it sometimes helps to put everyone listening, and the teller as well, on the outside of the story. In this way, if the story is compelling, everyone comes to the inside together.

To get some understanding of the benefit of this kind of generative organizational storytelling, let’s consider a sales manager who wants to help motivate his staff to work harder. With a common approach, he could spotlight one of his star sales people by sharing a story of something that person did that exemplified sales excellence. At times, that is appropriate, but at other times, it could cause animosity. Perhaps you can hear people saying, “Oh, he’s your favorite. Why can’t we all be like him?” It easily can lead to “us” and “them” thinking.

On the other hand, a generative approach might be more effective. For instance, the sales manager could tell a story about a person no one knows and spotlight actions that were either positive or negative. Then the staff could have a low stakes, but high engagement, conversation about what happened in the story. High engagement naturally happens with compelling stories. It is low stakes, however, because it is not about the people in the room. This could be very valuable for a contentious staff, or when talking about a sensitive issue, such as sexual harassment.

After initial discussion, with the generative story as an illustration, one can bridge directly into the listeners’ work by using questions like, “What do we see from this story that might apply to our work place?”

But, you don’t have to get direct. People learn from stories, even without directly discussing the applications to their lives. That makes sense, because when we are engaged in a story, in a sense we live it. And without even talking about it, perhaps not even thinking about it, we are led internally to make adjustments in our lives. Sometimes all that is needed is to hear the story and a seed of deep learning begins to grow.

Other times, for instance, when policy needs to be written or revised, we bridge into direct reflection with questions like, “Based on hearing this story, what are appropriate guidelines we might consider for our work place?” In this way, we are opening ourselves to “them” so that we might more fully and inclusively become “us.”

If you get a chance, come to the workshop to further explore this technique and to add your voice to the conversation.

About Tom

Tom Sparough is known as the Space Painter, because of the colorful mix of storytelling and juggling that he shares for his clients. He is a board member of the special interest group Storytelling In Organizations. Tom is currently experimenting with a series of generative ghost stories for business entitled “Managing the Dead, Ghost Stories to Keep Your Organization Alive.” Learn more and receive his monthly generative ghost story at

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