Storytelling 
Passport to the 21st Century
John Seely Brown, Steve Denning, 
Katalina Groh, Larry Prusak: 
Some of the world's leading thinkers
explore the role of storytelling in the world

 I Introduction to storytelling I John Seely Brown on science I Steve Denning on change I Katalina Groh on video
Larry Prusak on organization I Discussion I | Contact us | Bibliography on storytelling

Storytelling in Organizations: Larry Prusak
II.D. Stories as social bonding

Participant: Iíve been an observer of a group of people that come from different organizations, and they have a common goal to get together at meetings. What Iíve noticed is that whenever they get together, which is about once a month, they tell the same stories, which are usually like, ďItís so hard to get any progress!Ē (Laughter) They usually break down and bond and share that common goal. 

Larry Prusak: Itís ritualistic speech. 

Participant: And they need to do that first before they can get on to the agenda.

Larry Prusak: I think youíre exactly right. Itís not wildly different from praying. (Laughter) And Iím not being facetious. Itís using speech to bond together. ďWe have a common goal. We have a common objective. Weíre all treated the same. Now we can  trust each other.Ē Itís like sacrificing a goat together. (Laughter) They probably could do the same thing with the same motivation and get the same result. It wouldnít be wildly different. (Laughter) Iím only half joking.

   There is strong anthropological evidence for this phenomenon. Iíve noticed that if you get together with other people in a firm like IBM Ė I mean, IBM is a very big firm Ė the first thing theyíll do is piss and moan about the firm for a little bit. (Laughter) And itís ritualistic speech. Thereís a wonderful phrase used by anthropologists called phatic speech. Itís not emphatic, but phatic. And that is speech in which itís not the content that matters, but the fact that youíre saying it to bond with another person, or doing it as a ritual. Itís like saying, ďHow are you?Ē to someone. Itís a phatic statement. You may not really give a damn. Itís sort of ritualistic. And itís saying, ďI acknowledge your presence.Ē A lot of that sort of speech youíre talking about is phatic speech. Itís means: ďLetís get together. We all trust each other. Hereís who we are. Weíre people who are pissed off because we work in this firm and these things occurred and this is how we feel.Ē And then we can get into the content.

Participant: What about the idea that language doesnít necessarily describe reality but it creates reality? And that what weíre talking about in a conversation right now, when people are complaining about how badly things are going, that they are making it bad, or even worse. I just wonder whether people will be able to make the shift to talk about is working and what is going well, and so get rid of the age-old negative stories that re-create the negative reality over and over again.

Larry Prusak: Yes, I hear what youíre saying, but this is where I have a real issue with people who look at organizations outside of their economic content. Probably I am the person on this panel who is closer to the world of economics, and I donít think language alone creates reality. I think thereís a base of reality. For a lot of people, it is unfair to be working the way they are working in organizations. Itís an unpleasant life, and the economics of it determine the outcome. 

    So I would say, at least from my old 1960s perspective, that there are real reasons for the anger of people working in organizations. The disproportion of rewards to effort, the asymmetry of it. Iím treated well, and so itís not my situation so much, but there are real reasons for people to be upset. When you start to look at organizations, outside of the macro-economics, and see that people lose their pension, well, life is really hard for a lot of people. Then thereís the stock market. 

   But I agree with you that the negativism can sink you. I agree with this. Thatís something that what Zander was talking about. And I absolutely agree. The people who have a real gift for creating positive feelings are musicians. But most people have more quotidian or mundane aims, like having the kids get to see a college or paying off the mortgage. Thereís a lot of reality in life that is pretty tough for a lot of people, and often stories are outlets for them. I am less of a social constructionist than others. I may be more of an economist. (Laughter

Books and videos on storytelling 
*** In Good Company : How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work
by Don Cohen, Laurence Prusak (February 2001) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
(February 2000) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Springboard : How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Stephen Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann 
*** The Art of Possibility, a video with Ben and Ros Zander : Groh Publications (February 2001)
Copyright © 2001 Larry Prusak 
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