Telling Company Horror Stories
Your company’s horror stories are as important as its romances.
I’m not talking about the ghost stories and paranormal activities in your offices during off hours. Although these stories are among the favorites to be shared. I’m talking about real stories that put the company in a bad light—stories of failure, bad decisions, mistakes. These stories should never be reframed and retold to make the company look good. Not all stories need to be of triumph and success.
As soon as an organization learns how to tell its own stories, its first instinct is to tell positive and inspiring stories that will echo their mission, vision, and values. Stories have become a very effective tool in embedding these in the organization’s consciousness. But we may be enjoying our romances a little too much. Companies have tried to tell their own foundation stories in the hopes of inspiring productivity, collaboration, a sense of purpose, and even leadership from its people. This is all good, but not at the expense of the horror stories that are buried in the accounting books or simply allowed to be forgotten in the company lore.
The horror stories are as valuable as the stories of heroism, courage, ingenuity, resilience, and other virtues that the members of the organization have displayed. These are usually the stories that we are ashamed to share with the public or might give us bad press. Remember the year we hired the worst boss ever? How about the year when all our sales took a huge dip because of an experiment we ran without giving it too much thought? What about that time when we had to let go of almost half the company because we decided to expand too soon too fast? For sure, your organization will have its share of horror stories too embarrassing to share to the public. Failing to transform these failures into proper stories is a waste of opportunity to learn.
We have to make sure these horror stories remain that way—stories. We do that by transforming these failures into well-structured stories that we can learn from. In order to do this, the company must exercise a lot of honesty and must not be afraid to look at their own failures in the eye. And then, tell and retell these stories to itself.
These company horror stories should not be about finding and placing blame. This is about identifying actions and decisions that led to the failure. And if these are documented in story forms, it will be easier to dissect, analyze, and study.
As children, our parents told us horror stories to deter us from being disobedient, naughty, or misbehaved. They’d tell us stories of monsters under our beds to push us to sleep earlier, or of kidnappers that eat children to deter us from staying outdoors for too long. As we grew older, we consumed more sophisticated horror stories that teach us more mature lessons: don’t be too reckless, don’t put your nose where you’re not supposed to, don’t talk to strangers, etc. Horror stories were very effective teachers as much as the inspiring stories were. Since in the corporate setting, these stories are real and have probably cost the company millions, they surely will be terrifying enough for the adults to learn from.