52 Foibles: Story

In the whirl of our day-to-day interactions, it’s all too easy to forget the nuances that distinguish great teams, great cultures, and great products/services.

52-Foibles brings together 52 insights from psychology into an easy reference and brainstorming tool. Each card describes one insight into human behavior and suggests ways to apply this to your teams as well as the design of your products and services.

CARD #30 Story
All our decisions are filtered through a story—real or imagined—that we believe.
How might this apply to great teams and cultures?
We tell a lot of stories in organizations:

How might this apply to your business?
Are you creating a story that includes your stakeholders? Stories can be explicit—simple, episodic narratives. Or a story can be implied, using words that suggest conflict, a hero or other narrative elements. The most powerful stories are well-crafted visions that give significance to mundane tasks.

What story did you tell yourself about the last person you just met or came into contact with?
See Also
Commitment & Consistency, Autonomy, Authority, Affect Heuristic, Conceptual Metaphor, Priming, Framing, Periodic Events, Task Significance



Story Bias: War Stories

War stories in organizations are not literal stories of international military conflict, although they do tell of trials and troubles and how people survived and overcame the events that afflicted them.

War stories are typically told at meetings, conferences, and social settings, where old and young corporate warriors swap tales of what trials they survived and how hard it was, much as their military counterparts may tell and re-tell of their exploits.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs never quite got along. Over the course of 30-plus years, the two went from cautious allies to bitter rivals to something almost approaching friends — sometimes, they were all three at the same time. It seems unlikely that Apple would be where it is today without Microsoft, or Microsoft without Apple. Their story here.

But when we reminisce, it’s more about how life felt “in those days.” We worked long hours, didn’t get paid well, there were public arguments, backstabbing, sabotage–and through it all there were foxhole buddies that helped us through.

War stories are typically told as ways of nostalgic invocation of past trials. When told with old colleagues, they re-affirm bonds of friendship and shared experience. When told to younger colleagues, they may demonstrate authority or other superiority, giving evidence of their prowess. When a younger person tells the story, perhaps they are saying ‘Hey, I’m a tough guy too!’

By re-telling the stories, the teller also re-experiences them, gaining again the sense of excitement and danger, though now within a safe present.

War stories may also be told as a form of bragging, and competitions may arise as the warriors try to out-do each other with increasingly amazing stories (and maybe increasing elaboration).

Story Bias: Visionary Stories

Visionary stories tell about a desirable future that inspires and motivates people to work towards that future.

They are usually couched in very positive terms and may well be told from the viewpoint of the future, where the desirable state has been reached.


Steve Jobs is often referred to as one of the most visionary leaders of our time. He is credited with:

  • Igniting the personal computer revolution. …
  • Introducing the mouse and graphical user interface. …
  • Bringing portable music players to the masses. …
  • Revolutionizing the sale of music. …
  • Shepherding the age of computer animation. …
  • Opening Apple stores. …
  • Making personal computers stylish. …
  • Launching the smartphone revolution.

But vision seldom makes sense in the beginning. Pay attention to how it feels to hear something new. An example of vision might look something like this: Imagine it is five years from now. Imagine dry toilets being sold worldwide. Imagine them in every home from New York to New Delhi. In the midst of a worldwide water crisis, this is not fanciful. The greatest research and the greatest product exist for this to occur. It’s now up to a visionary leader to make this a reality regionally, then nationally, to make those products known and desired around the world.

Stories about the future motivate by giving hope and meaning, setting clear goals and giving people reason to work together.

Visionary stories also say much about the person who is telling the tale, showing them to be imaginative and positive.

Visionary stories are a common tool of leaders (and indeed the term ‘visionary leader’ is quite common) who use them to motivate people to work together towards a common goal that extends beyond the everyday ‘doing the business’.

Story Bias: Stories of transformation

Transformation stories tell about how individuals, groups and entire organizations went through deep and fundamental change, transforming from one state to another.

A common structure to this story is:

  • Before, we were happily blind, not realizing the difficulties. Then something happened and we realized that we could not stay where we were.
  • The transformation was a difficult journey and some did not make it.
  • Looking back it was all worth it. Now things are much better. Our future, looking forward, is bright.


There is no one else in the corporate world who has so taken to heart the essential lessons of sustainability — and then put them into practice. “From my experience, it’s a false choice between the economy and ecology,” says Ray Anderson. “We can have both — and we have to have both.”

Anderson came to green passions relatively late in his business life. He’d started Interface from scratch in 1973, and by the mid-1990s built it into a major player, generating nearly $1 billion a year in revenues. The environment wasn’t on Anderson’s radar screen; Interface complied with government regulations, but never went further. But in the 1990s, customers started asking him about the environmental impact of his business, and in 1994 he read a book called The Ecology of Commerce by the environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken, which criticized the tremendous waste in much of industry. “It was a spear in my chest.”


Like caterpillars and butterflies, transformation involves a deep change that leads to people emerging very different from when they entered the process.

Transformational stories often use the metaphor of a journey, often an adventurous one with hardships along the way.

Story Bias: Stories of fear

Fearful stories talk about a person’s concerns, worries, and fears. They may be direct and graphic or may be indirect and even make use of metaphor. Fearful stories are often told privately, as it is often not considered the right thing to do to expresses fear publicly, particularly where one might be considered weak and unworthy for having such negative emotions.

A widely held fear may also be expressed by leaders as a cathartic mechanism where others feel unable to make their fears known. A good way of doing this is to describe the fear and then assuage it in some way, for example by showing that things are not all that bad or that there is light on the other side of the hill.

Did you hear about the reorganization that’s coming up? What’s going on with the merger? Does leadership really know what they are doing? What’s going to happen to me?

When we are anxious, this creates a tension in us that seeks some form or release. Stories provide a way of doing this as our imaginings project futures more terrible than might reasonably be expected.

Being a motivating force (albeit negative), fear may be turned to some use for example in Lewin’s change method for unfreezing a person or organization.

Played well, organizational fear can become an effective leadership tool as the fear is sublimated into positive action. Done badly, however, it can have the reverse effect, paralyzing people or causing a contrary reaction.

Story Bias: Stories of Hope

Stories of hope tell of what might be.

They may speak of the hope for rescue from dire straits, of someone who will save the people and save the organization from the mess in which it finds itself now.

They may also project hope for positive success, of achieving visionary goals, of fat bonuses or of international acclaim.

The hope in the story comes may come out in the wistful tone and expressions of desire more than determination. There is typically a sense of dependency on the leader or on external and uncontrollable forces.

Barack Obama has been out of the White House for only a little more than a year. But it’s not too soon for historians to begin to assess the impact of his momentous presidency. As President, Obama never let go of the idea of hope. That was what made him so endearing to millions of Americans and shaped much of what he did in the Oval Office. Obama had clearly articulated his understanding of the nation when he came into the spotlight during the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

In the middle of one of the most contentious moments of the era, when Americans were deeply divided over a President who had taken the nation into a costly war in Iraq based on false claims of Weapons of Mass Destruction, then-Illinois Sen. Obama refused to give in to anger and disillusionment. “Even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. … But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
COLUMBIA, SC – JANUARY 26: (FRANCE OUT) Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) takes the lectern at his victory rally at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center January 26, 2008 in Columbia, South Carolina. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) is the winner of the South Carolina Democratic primary, a critical one for him, followed by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) with former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) coming in third. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Whether the hoped-for end is achieved may well be seen as being out of the hands of the hopers and in the hands of fate. This puts the hoper in a child position, effectively seeking a parent to rescue them.

Leaders can use hope stories to show themselves to be in harmony with the hopeful workforce, typically in times of change. The leader may then change the tone and show them the way forward.

In organizations, hope stories may originate in Basic Assumption Groups as described by Wilfred Bion, where dependent followers seek a leader who will rescue them.

Story Bias: Heroic Stories

From Duarte and Sanzhe’s book Illuminate

Stories in organizations can be very heroic in structure, using principles found in classic tales of heroes and their actions. These may include:

  • A bad situation where people are panicking and nobody is there to save them.
  • The identification of the villain who is causing the problems.
  • The emergence of a person who will do whatever it takes.
  • The forming of a party around the hero.
  • A journey of the hero and the party through difficult times.
  • Trials whereby the hero’s heroic nature and ability is tested and proven.
  • Action by the hero that nobody else in the party can or will undertake.
  • The winning of tokens and symbols of heroism.
  • Final overcoming of the ultimate challenge, with the defeat of villains.
  • The triumphant return of the hero.

Hero stories may also include other archetypal characters, rounding out the story and showing the value of supporting roles. Author Steven Pressfield writes about it eloquently here.

The hero’s journey in real life is personal. It is about us and us alone. Our gift—which is unique to you and me and which no one else on the planet possesses—breaks through the soil like a fiddleheaded sprout, which is ourselves-in-becoming. No wonder our knees knock as we launch on the journey. No wonder we feel fear and pain. No wonder the stakes seem like life and death. They are.

Start with yourself. Read any famous biography or autobiography. All stories have the same story arc. Communication experts Patti Sanchez and Nancy Duarte write about the common story arc of the hero’s journey and how to incorporate it into your business presentations.

Hero stories are often used as teaching tales, showing others what behavior is praiseworthy and valued.

These tales may well become exaggerated in some ways over time as the hero is portrayed in whiter-than-white perfection and the story is elaborated to make it more exciting and attractive for the listener.