PEOPLE MANAGEMENT : Telling Tales at Work – The low-down on gossip

In the familiar array of team-building techniques known to most managers – the Monday morning sports conversations, the recognition of anniversaries of appointments – there should also be room for workplace stories.

Peg: Smithy disgraced himself on the weekend.
X: Yeah, he told me about it.
Tess: Yes, what’s this story about your, um, stag party?
All: [Laughter]
Peg: Now you’ve upset him, Tessa.
Clara: How are you feeling now, Smithy?
Smithy: I’m feeling bit sore still but I’m fine.

Effective communication is key skill in business. But some people might consider the kind of gossip in the above exchange to be inappropriate talk in business environment. Telling stories is not generally considered an aspect of communication that contributes to getting things done at work.
Research carried out by the Wellington Language in the Workplace Project (LWP), however, indicates that storytelling can serve range of useful functions.
Stories about domestic events and exciting escapades are often told and re-told as part of ongoing social talk within an organisation; they become part of the shared repertoire of work teams. Previous research has also highlighted the use of stories in the creation of “organisational myths”. These stories provide the ‘official’ view of how an organisation began and developed, and they help to establish organisational and cultural values. It is often through such myths that the leaders in an organisation come to be perceived as heroes or stars, and others get to be familiar with the norms of management culture.
However, research into this kind of workplace storytelling has typically been based on data obtained through interviews at second hand. The Wellington Language in the Workplace Project provides different kind of data which offers fresh perspective on storytelling.
The everyday workplace interactions recorded by LWP include the actual stories that people tell at work in the course of their jobs, and the analysis identifies sometimes surprising work-related functions that these stories serve.
In order to investigate the different ways that language is used in the workplace more than 500 participants tape-recorded their everyday interactions at work in variety of New Zealand workplace settings, including government departments, commercial white-collar organisations, small businesses, and blue-collar factory environments.
The recordings demonstrate that alongside business talk, one important kind of social talk that occurs in the workplace is telling stories. Such stories may seem mundane and unimportant, even to the participants. The humorous anecdotes of colleague may be overlooked as dispensable and unnecessary digression from business-related talk which serves no greater purpose than to provide entertainment and amusement for others. In fact, the LWP research shows that storytelling can facilitate business productivity in variety of interesting ways.

Stories to keep things running smoothly

Smithy: But we should, I guess, start in the traditional manner and have Neville give us tale of his weekend.
Neville: Oh, there’s no tales to tell. Mind you, last night….
All: [Laugh]

This exchange took place at the beginning of weekly project meeting in commercial organisation. The kind of social talk which takes place at the openings of meetings helps to get people warmed up and involved. An amusing story about the weekend’s activities can create positive atmosphere and establish good rapport between team members. The stories establish an environment in which team members are more likely to communicate effectively with each other and hence achieve their business aims.

Stories for team building

Stories also provide means of siphoning off jealousy or expressing competitive attitude towards other colleagues in an acceptable way.

Barry: I don’t think it’s an issue anymore, is it?
Eric: Nah.
Barry: Cos you’ve got their attention now.
Eric: Yep.
Barry: [Laughs]
Eric: Yep.
Callum: What did you do?
Barry: He got standing ovation.
All: [Laughter]
Dudley: Oh, is that right.
Callum: That’s why he got their attention.
Barry: And now he’s developed whole project around it.
All: [Laughter]
Jason: Yeah.
Marco: Could need more staff.
Barry: Talk about empire building [laughs].

This very fragmented story is typical of workplace stories which are embedded in the context of talk; it is hard to follow if you don’t know the background. Barry is telling the other team members about his team mate Eric’s success in making business presentation. In recounting Eric’s success, Barry expresses grudging admiration.
Stories provide an acceptable and off-the-record outlet for channelling dissatisfaction, jealousy, or irritation that might otherwise be considered offensive when expressed in more direct way. By expressing potentially contentious attitudes through shared storytelling workplace relationships remain intact. Workplace anecdotes help to maintain collegiality between team members and preserve the team spirit in the face of what can often be challenging and stressful workplace demands.

Stories for the professional self

Storytelling is also means for individuals to establish and reinforce their professional identities within workplace group. story can indirectly emphasise the relative competence or incompetence of colleague and can be used to bring into the open what the storyteller considers to be the effective or inefficient characteristics of others. In this subtle way, the positive or negative comments that are disguised within story shore up team members’ professional identities and their status and roles within the team.
One manager played an April Fools’ Day trick on her team members. She persuaded them to make phone call and ask for Mr Lion; the number she gave them was the number for the local zoo.
For several days the animated re-telling of this workplace prank served to strengthen team solidarity by becoming part of the shared team history. But it also reinforced the manager’s position as highly regarded and respected core member of the team, who was nevertheless one of the “jokers”. The story reinforced the manager’s identity as tough boss who was also one of the guys.

Stories for men and women

Stories also enable individuals to express more masculine or more feminine identity in the workplace. good deal of research suggests that women and men tend to tell different kinds of stories: women’s stories often focus on people and relationships, while more often men tell tales about their activities and adventures. Individuals often exploit these well-established gendered patterns to portray more feminine or more masculine identity by the kinds of stories they choose to tell at work.
One manager described how he and his partner established successful IT company through their careful planning and hard work in which they sacrificed most weekends, and were willing to save hard and do without any personal financial rewards until the company was well-
established. This stereotypically masculine story demonstrated the professionalism and competence of the narrator, who presented himself as hero who had overcome great odds to succeed.
It is not only men that use narrative to portray more masculine identity in the workplace. One female factory production team manager in the LWP data often adopted stereotypically straight-talking masculine identity within her male-dominated, blue-collar work environment. As result, this manager was universally recognised as outstandingly good at her job. Her authority as team leader was accepted without question. One story told by this manager focused on weak team member and exposed his lack of common sense for the entertainment of others.

Ginette: Instead of banging the hopper.
Helen: [Laughs]
Ginette: He was banging the pipe [laughs].
Helen: [Laughs]
Ginette: [Laughs] And I said to him: What’s the matter Sam? [mimi

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