Storytelling in Organizations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies by Y. Gabriel

2000, Oxford University Press, Kindle Version
by Emily Ball Cicchini

Gabriel’s culmination of 10 years of organizational study, focusing on narrative story collection, is a highly satisfying, easy-to-read application of narrative theory to organizational communication. Firmly grounded in Aristotle, Bakhtin, Barthes, Boje, Bruner, Burke, Czarniawska, Derrida, Eco, Foucault, Freud, Fromm, Frye, Giddens, Goffman, Habermas, Jones (M. O.), Jung, Kuhn (T. S.), Lévi-Struass, Plato, Polkinghorne, Propp, Ricoeur, Schwartz (H. S.), Weber, Weick, and the fiction of Dostoyevsky, Terkel, and Tolstoy, he easily navigates narrative form and function across psychoanalysis, sociology, literary, economic, philosophy and communication theory to recap the major components of narrative with fresh insights particularly relevant to the way people navigate the work experience, particularly in large bureaucracies.

The result is a convincing “vindication” of storytelling, not only for organizational communication, but for academic research as a whole. Building from the ethnographers of cultural anthropology and the Frankfurt School, he acknowledges the value of deconstruction, and the value of the creation of meaning over the positivist’s pursuit of a rational, objective, empirical truth. “If people believe a story, if the story grips them, whether events actually happened or not is irrelevant.” (loc. 73) This does not mean that narratives and facts need be mutually exclusive. “The relationship between facts and stories is plastic,” he says (loc. 85). He describes many classical notions such as the plausible impossibility, catharsis, suspension of disbelief, and the relationships between plot and character in clear, simple language, that has been further informed by Freud, Jung, and an strong (but not morbid) interest in psychological motivation. Later in the book, this favor permeates, with forays into the value of nostalgia and the serious status and ego-damage of what many would consider common insults.

He delves into sociology, using different definitions of “folklore” to situate workplace storytelling as both a subversive and constructive activity (though not, generally, he observes, at the same time). He acknowledges that workplace storytelling is often not very developed or sophisticated, but does a very good job ferreting out the best to illustrate his points. He clearly appreciates good stories, thinks that bad stories actually do harm, and judges what he considers is an is not a story not only by length, structure, and other mechanical features, but by it’s ability to engage and emotionally move an audience. “Good stories represent a successfully met challenge, whereas poor stories may be seen either as personal failures on the part of the storytellers or as instances where meaning is drained out of discourse (loc. 144).”

He recounts the attraction to myths that came out of modernism, and the concurrent lament of the end of folklore and storytelling that many saw draining away due to the mass media. However, he sees the “proliferation of information in late capitalism” leading not to the decline in storytelling that the modernists imagined and the postmodernists proclaimed, but into “a massive process of turning information into experience (loc. 209). Building from the concept of sensemaking on organizations, he covers Weick, Boje, and Czarniawska, using the concept of “proto-story” rather than “antenarrative” to further the notion of future-focused sensemaking, which he takes one step further to label, in a non-pejorative way, as “fantasy.”

While noting that fantasy proto-story has a functional affect within organizations, he does not, by any means, wish to blur the distinction between fact and fiction. “It is essential, therefore, to preserve the distinction between narrative that purport to represent facts” and those that use facts as poetic material (loc. 350). The storyteller’s intent matters, as well as the audience’s reception. He believes that narratives are of higher value than other kinds of story like behavior, lists and reports and proto-stories. Even if there is risk that they are masking the truth, he ultimately trusts in narrative form and function, when properly executed, reveals a more abstract, metaphorical truth than fact.

It is from this very nicely laid out theoretically frame that he begins demonstrating his immense skill at applying, interpreting, and categorizing narrative stories collected in the field for specific organizational communication analysis. He eventually explicitly shares his “programme of research,” including his methods, interview questions, metadata, linguistic analysis software (“Cardbox-plus”). His linguistic research corpus contains 377 stories, from five different types of organizations with a nice balance of diversity in type (public/private), size, and industries (loc. 1881) It is from this corpus that most, if not all of the stories included within the volume originate. He has clearly lived with this material for some time, and his familiarity with it strongly enhances his interpretations and findings.

It is interesting that he begins his categorical analysis with four very classical literary story types, comic, epic, tragic, and romantic, although he also defines three sub types, gripes, traumas, and practical jokes. He also codes for themes, which are not particularly surprising for workplace stories (loc. 1938). He also makes an aesthetic, qualitative assessment of the materials, using the categories of “narrative complexity” and “emotional richness.” Quick to counter his own subjective assertion, however, and addresses the dangers of story-based research, while politely pointing out the challenges of fact checking even by the most rigorous of scientific method.

Chapter 7 goes into great detail about people’s stories involving computers, an elegant chapter with much still useful observations about people’s relationships to machines, even if some of the details already seem dated. He usefully labels these stories as “computer folklore,” paying off the groundwork he laid in the theory section, while reclaiming the many meanings and academic traditions behind the concept. Now, his management background comes more into play, with notions about novices and experts, employees and management, and creative vs. routine users (which still resonates today).

Chapter 8 revisits the notion of nostalgia, dissecting stories of the past as both comforting and sad, as much of a mood as an emotion. He evokes more psychology as well as Aristotelian pity and fear, finding the strong appearance of nostalgic storytelling as a relatively “benign and honourable” coping mechanism (loc. 2489). Chapter 9 continues in the psychoanalytic vein, moving forward into employees concepts of leadership, in relationship to mother/charismatic and father/messianic figures of authority, even ultimately to the concept of meeting with a supreme being. Influenced as strongly by Jung as by Freud, he nails the asymmetry of leader-follower relations by describing the inversions of power dynamics, where idealization becomes demonization, and identification becomes dis-identification. But the fault is neither entirely with the leader, or the follower. The final chapter on insults provides even more observant detail in workplace relational conflict that is too often dismissed.

In the end, a good story is a useful—if delicate—tool in organizational sensemaking.