collaboration, cooperation, learning, life, marketing, pattern language, politics, religion, teamwork
Fostering Group Cohesion through Common Narratives
The idea for this Pattern emerged from work done around 2000 with colleagues at IBM Research (including Cynthia Kurtz, Carl Tait, Frank Elio, Debbie Lawrence, Neil Keller, Andrew Gordon), Lotus (including Dan Gruen, Paul Moody, Michael Muller), and at the IBM Knowledge Institute(including Dave Snowden, Larry Prusak, Sharon Darwent & Fiona Incledon) on the business uses of stories and storytelling. Of course, stories have long been used by leaders to motivate groups and to help foster group cohesion.
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Created by John C. Thomas April, 2018.
Stories that we tell ourselves help define who we are and frame our experience, both individually and collectively. In relatively stable cultures, a number of common stories are usually shared by everyone. What makes storytelling challenging in modern life is that group boundaries are continually shifting and changing. It often happens that groups which used to be separate must learn to work together; e.g., because of a peace treaty, corporate merger or acquisition, or even a marriage involving extended families. In these cases, it helps to find within the stories of these groups, common values among the previously disparate groups and then make compelling versions of stories that express these values and tell them back to the entire newly formed team, family, group, company, or nation.
Groups across many contemporary cultures and throughout history have tended to tell, learn, and repeat stories as a way of codifying what is desirable and acceptable behavior, understanding the world, and communicating important lessons learned across generations. Such stories often include “creation myths” but also include stories about the “hero’s journey.”
In most cultures, these stories are transmitted orally regardless of whether such “cultures” are based on geography, company, religions, or even families. It’s true that some important stories have been put into written form. For example, many company founders have their own stories of founding the company put into written form. Religions often have sacred texts. However, both corporate cultures and religious sects and even congregations transmit the “proper interpretation” of these written documents orally. The written texts are modified very slowly while the oral interpretations can possibly change much more quickly. Nonetheless, the stories often persistently encode modes of behavior over centuries and even millennia.
When groups are stable over a long period of time and have minimal interaction, the fact that diverse groups have quite different stories seldom causes difficulties. As these diverse groups began to interact more frequently, it often happened that one group (typically the one with superior weapons) used violence to impose their stories on the other group. More recently, the world has become highly interconnected through inventions and developments in communications such as telegraphy, telephony, and the internet. Physical travel is also faster via rail, cars, and airplanes. People with different stories now come in contact of one sort or another very frequently indeed. Many of the most pressing problems that the world now faces including overpopulation, pandemics, and the destruction of the ecosystem require global cooperation.
The very different stories of different groups are not simply just a matter of preference or taste. They are much more crucial and central than that. The stories portray how people should act; they specify good and bad values. When cultures collide, the fact that their very different stories encapsulate very different preferred modes of behavior often fosters suspicion, fear, hatred and disgust. People do not simply observe that others behave differently in terms of speech, dress, food, rituals, and so on. They perceive that the others are doing things, not just differently, but wrongly. The stories of the “in-group” can be used to rationalize exploitation, enslavement, or even genocide.
- Life is too complex, changing, and chaotic to describe completely in empirically falsifiable scientific statements.
- Learning from others who have relevant experience can shorten learning time.
- Humans are social creatures who can feel empathy for others.
- Cultures use stories as memorable and succinct ways to encapsulate lessons learned and inculcate the proper values in the young.
- Because stories encapsulate much of a culture’s knowledge, members of the culture habitually do what is prescribed by stories and avoid what the stories proscribe. In this way, they can focus decision making among a much smaller set of possibilities and not be perpetually at a loss as to what to do.
- Because stories are valuable guides for the individual, they are reluctant to change those stories. If learned early, contradictory evidence is then particularly ineffective at altering or discarding stories.
- When people in the “in-group” perceive those in the “out-group” as behaving “badly” (not doing what the stories say they should), trust is ruined and cooperative action is nearly impossible.
Whenever two or more groups with different stories must work cooperatively for mutual benefit, create and promulgate new stories that stress the commonalities among the groups rather than stressing differences. In more detail, one way to do this is to collect important, value-laden stories from each group; find the common values expressed; generate stories that stress these common values; and then re-introduce these common values in the form of compelling, memorable common stories.
- Two people from very different cultures fall in love. Individually, they find that their love supersedes any feelings of disrespect for the way the other eats, dresses, speaks, etc. In fact, the difference may even be part of the attraction. However, the two families each experience discomfort when confronted with someone who is so different from what they are used to. In some cases, the couple may simply convince their families to accept their choice of mate. In other cases, as in Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story, love ends in tragedy. In other cases, they would work together by each learning more of the stories of their partner’s culture and find, among those stories, common values. They may find or create stories that stress these common values and relate those back to their families. A nice illustration of this is in the movie, The Hundred-Foot Journey in which two families from very different cultures come together over their skills and love of fine cooking.
2. In a corporate reorganization, both the Marketing and the R&D Departments are put under one executive whose job is to speed to market a stream of innovative new products. Among the factors that make this a difficult task is the fact that Marketing and R&D have different values, culture, and success stories. Of course, it will help if they are rewarded only for mutual success. But even this may not be enough. It will help to find and promulgate common stories that stress common, rather than different, values. Marketing people may typically dress more sharply than R&D people and put more emphasis on flash and dazzle. But stressing that will hardly encourage better cooperation. Instead, it will work better to stress, for example, persistence, originality and being willing to change based on feedback. These are values that are important for success in R&D and for success in Marketing. The story of Thomas Edison (light bulb; lead storage battery) and Ray Kroc (McDonald’s franchise) for instance, both show that success comes with persistence in the face of repeated failure.
3. Two companies merge. Let’s say one (a sports-focused media company) has a corporate culture that stresses work hard/play hard while the other (a sports-focused engineering company) culture stresses work hard/family time. If it’s really important for the two cultures to merge and then work together, promoting stories about the outrageous parties and wild orgies that the first company participates in will not be helpful. Instead, it will be good to find stories from both companies that stress the “work hard” part. Since both companies are concerned with sports, the settings and characters from stories can both utilize sports. But the values that are stressed should relate to working hard and the resultant rewards.
4. Many nations in an entire region of the world; e.g., Europe, are sick of centuries of war and counter-productive bickering and the inefficiency that comes of contradictory rules and regulations on transportation, environmental protections and so on. Despite different cuisines, traditional dress, and languages, they wish to be able to cooperate more effectively. In furtherance of that goal, they form a “European Union” which promotes the freer interchange of products, ideas, and people. Together, they constitute a formidable trading block and military force. It is important in such an effort to find stories that stress commonalities and then make sure these are prominently communicated among all the members. By contrast, an agent who wants to weaken or divide such a union would promulgate stories, even false stories, that stress differences.
Once a newly merged group shares a common story or set of stories stressing common values, they are much more likely to experience a higher degree of trust. This will make interactions more pleasant in terms of the on-going experiences but will also result in more effective action in meeting common or overlapping goals.
Build from Common Ground.
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