Craft a Narrative to Instill OptimismJohn Baldoni
Posted on Harvard Business Review: December 17, 2009 3:31 PM
"We do have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to make sense of the world," writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. "Individual responsibility is contained in the act of selecting and constantly revising the master narrative we tell about ourselves."
Brooks' explanation about choice of narrative can apply to leaders seeking ways to navigate our recession. The relentless tide of bad news may tempt those in charge to adopt a pessimistic view point, but leaders owe it to their followers to spread optimism. Without excluding reality, leaders need to inspire not simply hope, but also resilience. Storytelling can help in this effort. Here are some suggestions for crafting your own story to make sense of adversity.
Start at the beginning. Focus on what is happening. Be straight about the challenges your organization is facing regarding external factors like the economy and competition as well as global influences. Talk about what your company did right as well as what it might have done better to prepare for the downturn.
Develop characters. An organization is a collection of individuals. Discuss how you need the skills as well as the will of your team to survive. Make it clear you don't want to go through the motions, you want new ways of doing things. Highlight the good things that people are doing despite the tough times.
Address the conflicts. Drama requires adversity. Be certain to talk about how those forces are affecting your ability to do business, positively or negatively, and the impact they have on your people. Be as specific as possible. Talk about how the situation is affecting your customers buying habits as well as your ability to service current needs. Address the employment picture; if jobs may be at stake, tell people.
What is happening now. Adversity can bring about positive change. It may be an opportunity to optimize operations as well as provide new development opportunities for employees. Likewise, hard times may cause some competitors to go under, opening the door for your company to get new business.
Never make assumptions about the ending. Yes, we all want a happy ending to our story. You can talk about desired outcome in terms of business metrics (increasing revenues and improved profits) as well as people metrics (continued employment and better compensation). But do not promise the outcome unless you are certain you can deliver. It's better to undersell and over-deliver.
Weaving a positive narrative cannot be an excuse for overlooking adversity, though. Any manager who paints too rosy a picture, that is, one that ignores market realities and the effect they may have on business, employees, and customers, is not only woefully out of touch but proves himself to be less than credible. The spine of any narrative these days must contain the very distinct possibilities that hard times will be with us for the foreseeable future. That is not pessimism; it is realism.
But, stories that surface optimism in the face of adversity are not naiveté. They are a way to look at possibilities rather than foregone conclusions. If you craft a narrative that includes a context of the way things were as well as the way things can be, you provide a road map to make sense of the world in ways that inspire hope.