Story Wars: The Python with its Prey or Frivolous Cavorting

Joy L. Hart, Shirley Willihnganz, & Greg Leichty

Over the past few years, researchers, especially those working from an interpretive paradigm, have devoted considerable attention to organizational stories. Although previously ignored in much of the literature on and studies of organizations, the importance of stories in and to organizations has begun to be explored. Much of this work, however, assumes a coherent story and talks about what can be learned from the dominant story or stories in organizations.

In contrast, this paper examines the importance of tensions across stories and discusses what we can learn from these inconsistencies. Our discussion is supplemented by story examples from a manufacturing organization undergoing change.

Stories and the Human Experience

A large and rich literature documents the importance of stories to human life. For example, the work of Fisher (e.g., 1984, 1985a, 1985b) posits that humans are storytellers and that stories are "meant to give order to human experience and to induce others to dwell in them to establish ways of living in common, in communities in which there is sanction for the story that constitutes one's life" (1984, p. 6). In this view, life is the weaving of a story entwined with the lives of those who have gone before, exist now, and remain to come in the future.

Further, stories are frequent occurrences across our interactions with others. Bennett and Edelman (1985) argue that stories "are among the most universal means of representing human events" (p. 156). Such representation is also an important component of work life.

Stories and Organizational Life

Just as in other life contexts, stories are frequently told at work and about work. Several authors have discussed the importance of stories to individuals and to organizations. For example, Mitroff and Kilmann (1975) view stories as the "lifeblood" of an organization and suggest that "not only do organizations depend on them, but stronger still, they could not function without them" (p. 18).

Stories are powerful forms of implicit communication. Although statistics contain information from across multiple cases, stories, typically centering on one case or example, are more easily remembered by individuals (e.g., Barnett, 1988; Martin, 1982). And in part because they are easy to remember, stories are regarded as rife with meaning. Telling stories is seen as a key method by which organization members develop sharedness in their views (e.g., Barnett, 1988; Feldman, 1990; Gabriel, 1991; Hansen & Kahnweiler, 1993; Martin, 1982; Martin & Powers, 1983; Turner, 1986).

According to Boje (1991), organizations, because they are populated by individuals, are essentially storytelling systems. Through the telling and retelling of stories, organizational life is created. For the most part, researchers studying organizational stories, like those studying organizational culture, have assumed a high degree of similarity and familiarity. Researchers have posited that similar stories are evidenced across multiple organizations (Martin, Feldman, Hatch, & Sitkin, 1983), that stories are key indicators of underlying culture, and that socialized members of organizations will be knowledgeable about recurrent stories (e.g., Brown, 1985; Siehl & Martin, 1982). What has been much less often assumed and thus less often studied is tensions and dissimilarities in organizational stories -- and the battles that are played out through the telling of stories at work.

The remainder of this paper examines such phenomena and provides examplesfrom an organization undergoing change (see Hart, Willihnganz, & Leichty,1995, Willihnganz, Hart, & Leichty, forthcoming, and Willihnganz, Leichty, & Hart, forthcoming, for background and additional information on this organization).

The Voices in Organizational Stories

Even in organizations where there may be clear dominant stories perhaps representative of a relatively unified culture, we would expect elements of difference across story tellers. Typically, researchers thus far have tended to try to identify recurrent stories and link them to the organizational culture. When generalized stories do exist, however, also of interest is the unique aspects evidenced across tellers.

These differences exist, in part, due to the democratic nature of storytelling. Anyone can tell them. Further, because stories are frequent and easy to process, most people find them easy to understand. Stories are told throughout organizations, across levels, in various places, and by all sorts of people. Certainly, some individuals may hold positions which give them more "air time" for stories (e.g., boundary spanners who speak to associated groups, managers who chair meetings or give speeches framing events). But storytelling across the organization is a collection of multiple voices. These multiple voices may represent anything from differing views on or interpretations of a story to entirely different stories. Studying the different voices should provide one with much more information about what the many-sided story of organizational life is really like (Eisenberg & Goodall, 1993).

Story Wars at Auto Tech

Auto Tech had long been a "Mom and Pop" shop, started and managed by a spousal team who believed that work was fun and workers were family. Their retirement, and the departures of a couple of other key members of the supervisory team, led to the hiring of "professional managers," selected for their educational backgrounds and experience in the corporate arena. Prior to this, most members of the management team had been "home grown;" in other words, they were members of the family who had excelled. The managers promoted from within and the rest of the staff at Auto Tech, despite some differing views on the organization, operated with a set of common knowledge-- "the Auto Tech way of doing things."

Despite hearing descriptions of the organization and being provided materials on it, the new hires were not enmeshed in the Auto Tech way. Even beyond this, these new managers were pleased that they had been selected and hired to spur the company on to increased growth -- to move it from its "Mom and Pop" roots to a corporate giant.

What neither this group of managers nor the owners (who had desired change along these lines) could know was the degree to which change and change attempts were about to be played out at the narrative level -- a war of stories. And although this war exacted quite a toll on the organization and it members (including no profits for a two-year period, the first lay-offs ever in its history, and several firings), much can be learned about organizational paradox and change from examining key narratives. It is through the perspectives of the various key players and groups that we can uncover the areas over which legitimacy was being waged.

Due to space considerations, we will explore two general perspectives in the remainder of this paper. The first is from the long-timers, especially experienced managers at Auto Tech. The second is from the view of the newer hires, especially the new "professional managers."

The Auto Tech Way. Since its inception, Auto Tech had a consensual culture (Quinn & McGrath, 1985). Such cultures are characterized by group membership, high morale, and supportive relationships. Family was the metaphor guiding life at Auto Tech. Bill, one of the owners, described his philosophy this way, "You've got to be out there among them. You have got to feel like you are one of them, and they are one of you. And understand that the only way you are going to survive is if there aren't lines between labor and management. We are all on the same team." Many family values were obvious and talked about by numerous workers: informality, closeness, pitching in, working together, keeping the family together, fun.

The New Goal. The new hires, especially at the managerial levels, were well aware of the expectation that they would move the company to new levels of growth. Those with financial backgrounds thought that the company was positioned well for this transition. They brought with them some diverse experiences, but also a common thread -- a background in bureaucratic cultures (Quinn & McGrath, 1985). Such cultures are characterized as follows: high need for control, focus on tangible output, values on competence and goals, and centralization. The new CEO especially embodiedthese cultural values.

The clash of these cultures, the old Auto Tech way and the new Professional Auto Tech, was severe and readily apparent. Bill recognized that some "growing pains" were likely to occur during this transitional period. But what he hadn't anticipated included significantly declining morale, mass firings of long-term members of the organizational family, a union attempt, and intense jealousy and even dislike between old-timers and new-comers. And what many seemed to have difficulty sorting out was the crux of the problem. Below we examine some differences in the perspectives of organizational members.

The Python with its Prey. The old-timers continued to view the organization in familial terms, and their stories illustrated a family in crisis. These stories contained elements of a loss of closeness, the absence of fun and helping out, and evidence of too many rules, policies, and numbers. They related a great loss -- Mom and Dad were gone, they were missed, and the new caregivers didn't seem very caring really.

According to the old-timers, the new formality and protocols were squeezing the life out of the organization like a python suffocating its prey. Teamwork was being undermined; communication was being complicated; and response time was being lessened by procedures.

As the newcomers began to make changes toward a more bureaucratic culture, the reigning metaphor -- that of a family -- was reasserted by the old-timers. But in these new stories, the family was in crisis, and it needed to rediscover its bonds and successful ways. This reframing process (Bartunik, 1988) is often experienced as a series "deaths and rebirths," accompanied by anger, shock, confusion, ambiguity, and searching. "The Auto Way" was being challenged and perspective on the organization was splintering.

Frivolous Cavorting. When the new hires took stock of the organization, they saw a lot of wasted time, unfocused effort, and not enough structure. Life looked like an irresponsible country club (Quinn & McGrath, 1985) or a lot of frivolous cavorting. They developed structures, like policies and procedures, to try to "correct" these "problems." Reactions to these structures were varied, but many were very negative. The family metaphor was similarly enacted in several of the new hires' stories too, but in very different ways. In their stories, they described themselves as "step children" and spoke of feeling "illegitimate."

Lessons for Life (and Organizational Functioning)

Whether in one organizational family or another, this glimpse into the Auto Tech story provides us with some lessons. First, comparisons of stories, especially dissimilar ones, can help us glean insights into the underlying root causes of problems. There was considerable tension across these stories -- in who the real heroes were, regarding where to point the finger of blame, over how problems should be defined and solutions generated. This kind of examination also illuminates the different voices echoing throughout the organization and allows opportunities to glean understandings from across several groups.

Second, root metaphors often guide how crises will be enacted, and stories are often told to secure legitimacy for particular viewpoints (Feldman, 1990; Martin, 1982). At stake in the Auto Tech story wars was defining how organizational life should be conducted -- what "organizational reality" would be enacted. Throughout many, many of the stories centered very real concerns of how, if ever, this family would be blended. How will the family deal with the new experts who've married into it? How will it deal with its elders? How should new children with lots of energy, but little family experience, be handled?

Third, examination of story wars often yields insight into the varied perspectives of organizational members. At Auto Tech, some workers were seemingly totally enmeshed in their own world view, while others understood the paradoxes very well. This second group of individuals also typically were able to articulate the views of other groups. Many of them recognized potential advantages and disadvantages to each operating system. These individuals seemed to be protected from the worst aspects of the war and to have insights that when shared with others could promote healing.

Much can be learned from examining diverse communication perspectives, voices of dissention, and messages designed to integrate. Examining the differences in narratives during story wars allows for one opportunity for such investigation.


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