Corporate storytelling – Are we ready for the corporate cleric?

Famous entertainer gets on stage to greet audience

More corporations are turning to storytelling as a corporate communications device, partly to promote greater integrity in corporate decision-making.

While we may not be expecting our executives to deliver the corporate equivalent of the ‘sermon on the mount’ to staff each year, communicating corporate philosophy is becoming an important responsibility for today’s business leaders. This can bring with it some level of moral instruction, whether through storytelling or other mediums.

Why is this happening and what are the challenges?

As Governance Institute of Australia’s Ethics Index and the international Corruption Perception Index reveals, Australians are losing trust in their institutions, including private corporations. Various royal commissions and scandals have been nurturing the public’s cynicism and have taught us all governance lessons.

Regulators have, for example, placed greater emphasis on corporate culture to promote ethical decision making in organisations. Examples of corporate ethical failures have taught us that you can have the best code of conduct in the world, but if you have a bad organisational culture, its ability to guide ethical decision-making is limited. As a result the 2019 update of the ASX corporate governance principles and recommendations asked more from corporations to instil a culture of acting lawfully, ethically and responsibly.

Companies in Australia and abroad are experimenting with different tools to support a healthy corporate culture, starting with defining and operationalising its corporate philosophy, aka its purpose, values and principles. Principle-based codes of conduct, decision making models and ethical ambassador programs are examples of such tools.

An emerging tool is corporate storytelling.

Storytelling today is widely used for education and training in a range of industries, such as in medicine and the military. It is now being used more by corporations to embed their corporate philosophy into their culture. This is not surprising; storytelling has been used to convey not only information but high level moral and philosophical concepts for thousands of years before the written word, e.g., through parables, legends and myths.

Internationally, behavioural scientists and psychologists are helping organisations understand its potentials and mechanics. Some researchers suggest that storytelling is able to simulate conditions in the receiver’s brain that connects intellectual concepts to feelings and emotions. We are able to live the experience virtually through our identification with the characters, and this creates an imprint or ‘virtual memory’ in our mind. Through the unfolding of linked events, the story is able to convey concepts too sophisticated for other mediums and which, importantly, have a greater role in influencing behaviour.

As morality in business has to have some semblance to that found in society generally, does this bring with it an expectation that a good business leader must also be a good moral/spiritual leader? This brings other questions, like how do we train them to be such corporate ‘clerics’? And how do they use storytelling ethically, e.g.:

  • Should stories be true, and if not, should you tell people if you have made up a story?
  • How much can you adjust a story from real life?
  • What responsibility do you have to people in the story, such as their privacy?
  • Should you pressure people to tell stories?
  • Are you using a story for self-interest or for the benefit of its receivers?
  • Should stories be used as rules going forward (like legal precedent) or as vehicles for refection?

Clearly this also implies that business leaders must be seen as part of society’s ethical infrastructure and deserve guidance on how to fulfil this role effectively and ethically. As we develop storytelling, business leaders have a better chance of staying on the right side of ethical storytelling by:

  • Considering, before introducing a story that is not true, how people might feel if they found out the story was not true. That will guide the leader on how to present the story.
  • Using storytelling as an opportunity to assist others reflect on decision making in consideration of the corporate philosophy rather than as an example of how future situations must be handled. Every situation is unique, and the aim is to nurture decision making skills, not introduce another rule.
  • Not confining themselves to stories with Hollywood endings. Indeed, talking about mistakes can help others connect with the leader.

About the author:

David Burfoot is an ethical governance expert and author of Governance Institute's Ethics, Culture and Governance short course. David provides integrity governance advice and training to not-for-profit, public and private sector bodies in Australia and abroad.

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