Storytelling as a vehicle for growing an ethical culture

Stories can be used to create a culture within an organisation.

While stories might be viewed as entertaining by adults, it is generally associated with moral lessons for children. As such, most cultures have an inherent love of stories. Stories are used by young and old alike to teach about the past and about current traditions and their origins. It teaches those members of a particular culture how to live within the framework of their community by teaching what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. There has lately been a move toward harnessing stories as tools in organisations and society at large to convey deeper ethics messages.

Prof Leon van Vuuren, of the TEI, encouraged members to consider this at the Annual TEI member breakfast held on 22 July in Midrand. Attendees were encouraged to share stories of their own experience around ethical incidents which affected their behaviour and remained in their memory as a lesson learnt or an example of courageous behaviour. Stories draw the listener into a relationship with the teller and the characters and their struggle with right and wrong, good and bad. Listeners mentally engage with and become emotionally involved in that they learn from the consequences experienced by the characters, be these consequences positive or negative.
Prof van Vuuren’s presentation titled: Once upon a time … From stories to culture, drew on the stories shared by members of the audience. He then used this to demonstrate that stories can be used to deal with ethical challenges and promote ethical behaviour in the business environment. It was also illustrated how stories can contribute to link ethics to workplace behaviour and how to answer the question of what we “ought” to do, ‘even when no one is watching’.

According to Leon, stories engage us because they are rooted in our imagination and emotions. Stories’ themes usually concern individuals in a particular context. A good storyteller will engage the audience, help them to relate to the protagonist and thus make them feel that the story is somehow about them, or someone like them, who also faced an ethical challenge. Stories can be used to create a culture within an organisation. However, to be successful as a vehicle to grow ethical culture, storytelling needs to be a conscious strategy that connects to organisational goals and values. It further needs to demonstrate positive change within an organisation, be based on relevant information and have the employees as the central characters. “Stories need to be positioned in the big picture and tap into the organisational memory,” Leon said.

Although any employee can tell a credible story, storytelling is more successful when long-term employees and opinion leaders are used for this purpose. “They should not be based on fiction, but on facts that reflect the kind of values and actions that leaders and employees exhibit again and again.”
Leon quoted Tom Kelly who said that ‘By rooting their stories in authenticity, storytellers can spark emotion and action, transmit values and objectives, foster collaboration, create heroes, and lead people and organisations into the future.” It stands to reason that storytelling could be used as a powerful, albeit informal, vehicle to effect ethical change in the culture of the organisation.  He also relayed the following two stories:

The Motorola Story

In the 1950s Motorola had an opportunity to secure a multimillion-dollar deal with a certain South American government. The contract would have been exceptionally profitable. When the closing of the deal was imminent, the Motorola executives realised that the deal had been structured in such a way that would suggest a kickback for that government. The executives walked away from the deal and returned to the USA. They expected to get fired for losing the potentially lucrative deal. Instead, the founder and CEO of Motorola at the time, Paul Galvin, lauded them for their actions. Galvin also declared that the company would not do business with regimes known for corruption. Had Motorola been part of such a deal it would have created the appearance of participating in corruption. The executives eventually held senior directorships in the company. By virtue of this decision and resulting action by the company, Paul Galvin had acquired a good individual reputation for ethical behaviour. With Galvin as a role model Motorola had the foundation of a company that relied on ethics to build its reputation. Clearly, potential business partners would also have felt secure in the knowledge that they would be treated ethically when conducting business with Motorola.

From: Rossouw, D. & van Vuuren, L. (2013). Business ethics (5th ed.). Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

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