What Does Storytelling Have to Do with Business Ethics?

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If you commit to telling stories that lead your employees to certain ethical conclusions, are you upping your odds of guiding those employees to high ethical standards? I suspect so. Stories’ descriptiveness can lead to appreciation of complexity. I used to make my living writing about architecture and real estate. I always loved reporting with construction managers because they showed the complexity and daring in buildings in ways you could never find on the architect’s rendering. If the promotion looked airbrushed, then the story of a project looked like a lot of pipes and joists and mullions. And it was exactly whatever shape it was, could only be that shape, because every story is the story it is.  

Let me tell you what happened when I once steered into a tale of ethical fog in New York City’s most high-profile architectural commission of the century. My source Fred Schwartz had led a team that nearly won the World Trade Center site design competition, but at the last minute Governor George Pataki intervened to select a scheme from Daniel Libeskind. (New York state co-owns the site, making the architect a contractor to the governor.) Libeskind, an Israeli raised in the Bronx, had led the design of a beloved Holocaust museum in Berlin. His scheme for Ground Zero, with promises of sunlight hitting a tower each day at exactly the moment the planes had struck the original buildings, begged all manner of technical questions. No matter. Other architects brought concepts, said Pataki, “but Daniel brought a story.”

Stories’ specificity can surmount peoples’ instinct toward distraction.

In this case, the story didn’t end with rose petals and Gatorade dumps. Schwartz died a few years ago, and the topography at the World Trade Center site scarcely resembles Libeskind’s design. But the mesmeric effect of stories still glows over our current rebuilding challenges. We see that in the language many politicians deploy about “beating the virus” as if Covid were a megalodon in a blockbuster movie. So, more broadly, does storytelling’s power to sluice social values into business decisions.

Now, when I say “story,” what do I mean? I mean something to convey how people who concocted conditions got to the moment in which they made choices. I mean some record of a strategy choice that captures what people were wearing, describes how their coffee smelled in the meeting room, lets us know whether rain was falling past the window. These details cue us to imagine facing what the decision makers faced—and the uncertainty they confronted. 

Storytelling matters because it conveys what’s real without smoothing over the choices, coincidences, and constraints that made it real. And it’s precious now, because the software filters and split-second “hot takes” that crowd daily life make it hard for anyone to grasp that process. Today, ethics and stories face definitional challenges. If societies evolved ethics to guide what ought to happen in history, they evolved stories to make the architects (see that?) of history more empathetic and emulatable. Just by the noise they create, Slack pings and drops-in-the-chat threaten the slowed-down cognizance of someone else’s circumstances that we all accumulate when we listen to stories. So I’m here to propose that organizations whose leaders commit to developing stories with craft and humility can also lead their fields in ethically robust decisions.

You can teach storytelling by guiding your teams through exercises in perspective, compassion, explanation, and traditional campfire-style details. Let me paint you a picture. 

Consider how much of your daily idea diet comes in simulations and declarations, things that forestall explanation of why or how we got where we are. We paddle a sea of deepfakes and Photoshops, where pauses in the stream of distractions come via “meetings” during which you “enter” “breakout rooms” and announce, “It’s great to be here!” Consider the instant poll, or the emojis you slap when you leave a rental car counter. Consider the thumbs-up you cause to appear on your screen when someone proposes something that ends some uncertainty. Now consider an alternative to the constant swirl of opinions.

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Suppose your manager asked you to write a paragraph describing the workday from the perspective of one colleague, the one who wants to change your standard practice. Then the manager asked you to read a paragraph describing the day of a stay-the-course champion. Last, you see a request to write out or act out a meeting in the dog park between the two. The sight of them each holding a leash and letting it out a bit creates a symbol of balance, or of compromise. Your opinion on whatever change you were pondering might still be expressed as a thumbs-up, but I’ll bet you’d have power to adapt it or adjust it or curtail it with more dexterity. 

Do emojis neutralize storytelling? Nah, but they cloud its effects. It’s no accident that we witness politicians indulging Big Lies and corporations making unenforceable “pledges” on climate and inclusion in a moment when nobody can grab the authoritative mic to describe what’s going on with an end in mind. When the dominant metaphor for our experience is not the lesson or the meeting but the feed, no assertion lasts long enough to sustain our empathy for others or our conception of an outcome that works for everyone. 

Likewise, when a community lacks story gathering skill, a vacuum forms that despots can fill with ideologies. These look like stories, and mimic stories’ rhythm to the point that they feel like stories. But as I’m using the term, nothing with a blanket conclusion counts as a story. What Hitler, Milosevic, and Trump sold was a resistance to the confusion, intertwining, and perspectival compromise we get from stories. And ideologies, like ignorance, can bring about bliss when the complexity before us leaves no simple choice. 

Consider the climate crisis, on which I have spent most of my time as a reporter and teacher. Many developers, advocates, reporters, and entrepreneurs I admire have shared puzzled huffs about how they tell people about the horrors we can cap—the wildfires happening before their eyes, the floods at their doors—and policies don’t change at a rate to meet the peril. Yet Google, Apple, Amazon, and Shopify built robust carbon-neutral strategies after people within their ranks changed their behavior, confronted managers, and otherwise made personal experience the stuff of climate concern. It was perhaps harder to wave off the climate crisis when that crisis presented itself as, “What dominated all my meetings for the past four days.” 

Stories’ specificity can surmount peoples’ instinct toward distraction. Many people shied from thoughts about abusive police before George Floyd’s last steps, from the checkout line to the pavement, registered. The counterfeit bill and the knee in the neck felt indelible. Similarly, conventional wisdom says that marriage equality became real when enough Americans knew a same-sex couple that the issue became one they saw in unthreatening form at Thanksgiving. Details arouse identification, if not empathy—and when people identify with details about other people, they tend to glimpse their own lives within the others’.

Storytelling technique is teachable, in companies as in creative writing classes. Managers ready to challenge their teams to grapple harder with how things got to where they are might deploy storytelling techniques with their designs. It starts with what’s happening, stirs in what’s on people’s minds, and—as we see in Lower Manhattan—anchors in symbols. More important, unlike what we saw in Lower Manhattan, storytelling can lift those anchors and guide teams into a future of honest reckoning, sustained negotiation, and new horizons.

Alec Appelbaum is News Editor at Yale Center for Business and the Environment. Follow him on Twitter @alecappelbaum.