On Narratives

untold storyAt this point in my coaching practice, as well as in my own personal experience, I am dealing a lot lately with what I call “The Narrative”. Well, I’m not the only person who uses this term of course, since The Narrative Paradigm is a communication theory proposed by 20th century philosopher Walter Fisher and has been adopted and adapted in behavorial psychology, social psychologiy, psychoanalysis and in anthropology.

The first time I was tought about this theory was when I studied anthropology. To be short, Anthropologists study several systemic features of human beings (for example: behaviour, belief systems, social systems, etc.) trying to determine whether there is such a thing as (sub)culture and if so, what the features might be to determine why an invidual is seen as part of that culture or not. It might seem silly reading this, since the differences between cultures or between individuals for that matter is what we all experience and encouter practically every day. But if you start to really think about it, there is nothing quite tangible out there, is there? It is not that there are two behaviours to pick up and put under a microscope to compare with each other.

As an anthropologist, or pscyhologist, you are bound to start your investigation to find a comprehensible theory by communicating with the subjects, which are people.

And that is where the narrative paradigm kicks in, which states that the narrative is any verbal and nonverbal interpretation which is arranged logically to generate a meaning. And since it is basically human nature to survive reality by giving meaning to it, we are all determined by this narrative. This mechanism can clearly be seen in psychoanalysis for instance. We all tell our life stories in a way that impressive happenings or traumatic events in our pasts or our challenges and experiences in the present and the hopes and fears for our futures become a cohesive entity. The story has to provide us with structure by making causal, intentional, temporal and spatial connections. Every time something new happens, this personal story gets represented and reproduced. “Everybody’s gotta story” is really true.

In Anthropology this mechanism is also seen on a larger scale. There are such things as cultural narratives or beliefs narratives. For example, if a Chinese tourist asks a 20-year old young student in Ghent what he should visit or experience to understand the Belgian culture, this young man will most likely tell that Chinese to visit the Medieval fortress, the kathedral with the Van Eyck Altar, eat French fries -which are not French but very Belgian- and go to a typical local pub to drink at least 5 top beers. Reality however is that the chances are 10 to 1 that that young student has got his bike stolen at the walls of that fortress, has never set foot in any church, is a vegan and also drinks only non alcoholic drinks. So the question is where do these kind of “too typical” answers come from? It’s an example of cultural narrative. So every culture, every beliefsystem, every individual, every subculture (by which I also refer to company culture) has a narrative. A story in which past, present and future are told by means of important events, meaningful challenges, certain values, core features.

An anthropologist is rarely interested in that narrative, he wants to get beyond that narrative. So, next question is, how?

The anthropoligist/psychologist/sociologist is tought not to narrow any investigation down to interviews, since this is the true playground of the narrative. He or she has to do field work as well, which means: looking at the actions. What is really going on, taking into account that the scientist is bound by his own narratives as well. Very more often there is a discrepancy between what is seen and the narrative, but what many scientists have experienced is that when the narrative is being questioned, that narrative will be defended. In comparison to the narrative in psychoanalysis, as the human condition to make sense of the self, the identity, that is also true for the social and cultural narrative, as a means to make sense of ones position in the world in comparison to ‘the other’. Belonging to a certain social group or culture is a very important human survival feature, to make sense of one’s ‘self’ and of ‘the other’.

What gave me food for thought is that there was never the question whether these discrepancies were merely… lies. It seems that when it comes to the discrepancies between the narrative and acutal handlings, people do not see it as lies. There isn’t any moral conclusion in any scientific research concerning these narratives. I figured at that time that since they are one of the most important survival features of human kind to try to make sense of the world, there is no need for that, is there?

Well it was not until it popped up again in pscyhoanalysis that I gave this question a linguering second thought. I have learned that someone’s narrative can in fact be a lie in order to abuse or manipulate another person for his or her own benefit. And in order for that to be possible, the listener has got to have one typical feature: the lack of ego. When the listener has no ego, another person’s narrative can (I emphasize can, since manipulative features are at hand too) get internalised by the listener. Leaving the listener with a loud interpretation of reality by the narrator combined with still a sense of the own experience (intuition maybe?) of that reality but because of the lack of ego is not capable of seeing clear boundaries between the narrative of the self and the narrative of the other. In short, I have learned that the narrative is one of the tools in pscyhological abuse as well, and in order for it to work you only need a listener with a poorly developed ego. For the listener (or victim), reality itself becomes a blurry unreliable thing because any own experiences and possible own narratives (as a survival mechanism to make sense of the world as I pointed out earlier) get over written as it were by the narrator. So there are two different realities to deal with instead of one. If this happens for a longer period in time, the physiological symptoms people encounter are very similar to or even the same as what doctors call burnout these days. This is of course enlarged in the example of dishonest abuse, but I can’t help but starting to see some kind of link here.

Coming from anthropology, any group of people that wants to define itself within the rest of the world, can be seen as a subculture. Companies, large or small, can be seen, studied and understood as entities with different formations, structures, business models, marketing models, company values, by which they define themselves in comparison to the other (competitors). Henry Mintzberg studied the several different company features and doing so, did this in a very anthropological way I found. In his book “Mintzberg on Management” he talks about 7 possible configurations in which companies can be organised, dependant on what the goal of that company is (for example GOOGLE is organised differently than an IKEA and they on their turn can hardly be compared to an art galary). Which means that all companies all over the world are in some way a copy of the same 7 possible configurations. Since that would be the worst possible marketing pitch imaginable, companies are bound have a narrative. That is easy to find: every company website states its mission, its values, its goals, the features they are looking for within applicants, etc… The applicants reply on their part with their narrative (application letter, job interview, …).

And here the anthropological issue is at hand again. In those companies where such a thing as company culture is a core value in itself, an applicant will be judged by having those cultural features or not. Again, it is not something you can ever find under a microscope as evidence… it is merely something you feel if you were ever in the position of hiring people. So you kind of have a mechanism of two narratives wanting something from the other. Which means there are actually only two options to go. It is, as it were, or you have a person with a well developed ego (which is a subconscious feature) that at first sight smoothly fits into the narrative, or it can be a person with a poorly developed ego who can at first sight smoothly internalise the wanted narrative. In the long run I believe reality will strike, by which I mean that the discrepancies between what is said in the narrative and what is actually experienced cannot and will not stay unnoticed. The person with the ego (personal boundaries) will contest that and that will provide any management with many questions how to deal with that (for example: conflict management, dealing with feedback, ego management, talent management, etc…). The person however without ego, or a poor one, will find himself with an internalised narrative on top of his own (however limited) intuitive interpretation of reality confronted with the fact that this narrative is hardly comparable to reality. I wonder if absenteeism and burnout could be linked with this idea?

Although I stated earlier that people are determined to defend the narrative, I know for a fact that personal narratives (inforced by the self or by the other) can be torn down in order to reveal possible discrepancies with intuition and reality. NLP (neurolinguistical programming) for example is the new hottest thing in Coaching Land, where it is key to redefine the narrative to open up to new possibilities and new angles while looking at the same reality. But it seems that it is only being questioned on a very individual and personal level and mostly after a crisis of some sort has occurred.

I really wonder what the outcome could be if companies would be able to question their narrative once in a while? Could it be an option to avoid crises even? Could it mean just the slightest adaptation in the many theories on talent management, ego management, or even just management in general? I wonder.


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