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River stories or rut stories?

River stories or rut stories?

There are two types of stories at work – river stories and rut stories. River stories have a pioneering spirit. Rut stories have a defensive spirit. One is about going forward into new territory. The other is about building a wagon fort and calling back the past.

Creating a culture of meaning and fulfilment at work involves various forms of corporate storytelling. The stories you tell yourself and others define who you are and contribute to your environment at work. Robert Hargrove, a Master Coach and author mentions two types of stories in the workplace that have a profound impact on the work environment – river stories and rut stories.

People who tell river stories come across as inspiring, authentic, transparent, have no hidden agendas and tend to energise the culture at work for positive change. They speak of possibility and lean towards a transformational future.

People who tell rut stories appeal to the fears, anxieties and frustrations of fellow workers. They plant stakes in the ground to protect territory and lean back to an idealised past.

Jane Fonda once said that “everything spirals downward, rots and decays, except the human spirit, which has the capacity to grow and evolve upward.”

Telling river stories at work will inspire and elevate the human spirit. That does not mean we need to sacrifice our intellect by creating an illusion that masks reality. River stories help us embrace our situation without downplaying problems — we hold up a lens that focuses on learning, pro-active engagement and embracing the future.

Fundamentalist rut stories

People who take pleasure in rut stories are often susceptible to conspiracy theories, are suspicious of science and tend to interpret events and change in a negative, de-energising light. Although there are many types of rut stories, the professional victim story is common.

People who repeat a victim story build a watertight case using defensive reasoning about how people or the organization are doing them in. They wallow in their victim-hood and are very artful in getting people to support their cause.

Once people convince themselves that their leaders are selling them out, or smart meters are actually spy systems, or management has no backbone, the continuous repetition of these simplistic stories results in energy-sapping, rut-story fundamentalism.

James Hollis, the Jungian analyst and author says that fundamentalism is “an anxiety management system that finesses the nuances of doubt and ambiguity through rigid and simplistic belief systems.”

If you are asked to take over a toxic department or unit because the previous leader was fired, decided to resign or was transferred to another area, you will have a tough job because you will have inherited something you did not create — an environment oozing favouritism, patronage, and inauthentic communication.

Ed Catmull, the CEO of Pixar and author of Creativity Inc. describes it this way, “so when problems arise—and they always do—disentangling them is not as simple as correcting the original error. Often, finding a solution is a multi-step endeavour. There is the problem you know you are trying to solve—think of that as an oak tree—and then there are all the other problems—think of these as saplings—that sprouted from the acorns that fell around it. And these problems remain after you cut the oak tree down.”

You need to confront rut stories — those that continue to sprout, through deep listening and insightful questions. Shine the light of enquiry into myth and superstition that has a veneer of credibility. And address rut stories that reinforce a culture of slacking off or mediocrity.

Every rut story needs to be replaced with an energising river story that nudges the culture away from pessimism and defeat to optimism, engagement and purpose.

Comfy rut stories

Comfy rut stories are told by people who want to call back the ‘good old days’ when “Jeff was CEO.” Being in a comfy rut is not about having a fundamentalist or negative view of the organization. It’s more about your comfort and emotional investment in an idea or the way things should be done. Or the need to go back to the perks, software and spreadsheets “when Sheila was our manager – you remember Sheila?”

Let’s say you have a killer idea to solve a problem. You’re also protective of your idea, and you hold it pretty close to your chest. Your colleagues know from experience that you are not open to feedback, because you get defensive when they offer alternatives. And that usually shuts down the conversation.

To get out of the rut, you have to let go of any insecurity you might feel about your idea being rejected or your need to be recognised. You need to invite feedback on your idea or plan.

Inviting feedback and scrutiny is the moment when you choose to leave your rut or the safety of your foxhole and enter the Rubicon — a white-water environment that relies on clarity, openness, trust, teamwork and collaboration.

Cultivating river stories

Back to Catmull. “I’ve known many people I consider to be creative geniuses, and not just at Pixar and Disney, yet I can’t remember a single one who could articulate exactly what this vision was that they were striving for when they started.”

Rivers don’t just happen. Rivers find the path of least resistance over millennia and carve out a way through the environment to the sea. Looking down from the International Space Station, you might not be able to distinguish between a rut and a river until a sliver of water is reflected in the sun.

River stories that welcome diversity, spark innovation and are purposeful take time to carve their way into the minds and hearts of employees. But when they do, they become the meaning that drives momentum at work.

John DeHart, co-founder of Nurse Next Door said, “Purpose trumps profit every time. If I derive something with purpose and with heart and soul, I know profits will come at some point, and that’s the beauty of building a purpose-driven company.”

River stories happen when leaders instinctively shut down rut stories that stifle the human spirit. Their actions, including leading by example, inspire others to carve a riverbed culture that nurtures the human spirit because the work they do has purpose. And meaningful purpose “leads to profit at some point.”

Dene Rossouw Dene Rossouw

Learning Coach at team Possibil.

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