One Key To A Happy Team? Storytelling

Studies show that the stories we tell each other--to our kids, our employees, and our peers--have an impact on the emotional health of the group.

Outside of extenuating circumstances like tragedy and hardship, why are certain families happier than others?

A recent article in the New York Times profiles the work of Marshall Duke, a scientist interested in ritual and myth in family life. Duke’s research includes administering a test called “Do You Know?” to kids, asking them questions about where their grandparents grew up, how their parents met, and other important events in their family history. He’s found that kids who know more about their families tend to be happier, ostensibly because they feel like they’re part of a network--an “intergenerational self.”

Duke suggests that if parents want to raise confident kids, it’s important to tell them stories about their family and their beginnings. And the most powerful type of narrative--there are three major ones--is one where the family has ups and downs, as opposed to all ups or all downs. Interestingly, the same goes for companies, and even soldiers in the Army. Duke’s research is paralleled by similar studies in business and law:

Many groups use what sociologists call sense-making, the building of a narrative that explains what the group is about. Jim Collins, a management expert and author of “Good to Great,” told me that successful human enterprises of any kind, from companies to countries, go out of their way to capture their core identity. In Mr. Collins’s terms, they “preserve core, while stimulating progress.” The same applies to families, he said.

According to one administrator at the Naval Academy, this kind of thinking is shifting how young recruits are treated by their superiors. Rather than a spirit-breaking crush of insults a la Full Metal Jacket, today’s Naval Academy students are more likely to get “history building exercises,” like “going to the cemetery to pay tribute to the first naval aviator or visiting the original B-1 aircraft on display on campus.”

The same goes for startups and larger corporations. We tend to think of branding as a vehicle to communicate a cogent narrative to customers, but those narratives also have the potential to benefit employees. Developing a strong sense of mission and history is as much about the employees as the users. Read the full story here.

[Image: Tea Party via Shutterstock]

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3 Comments

  • ben

    The practice of recounting the ancestral history on special days in the Jewish calendar also aligns with this insight. Within a context of a coherent meta-narrative, an appreciation of meaning, purpose and values can be appreciated and lived. Many inventors and story-tellers I admire come from this tradition. There are certainly dramatic highs and lows.