The power of the narrative - an open story without a beginning and an end - has long been leveraged in politics and is becoming more widely understood in business today. A compelling narrative mobilises people, shaping thoughts and action. Yet equally a powerful anti-narrative can bind and subject people, leading to destructive action.
So what can leaders do when facing anti-narratives such as banks are self-serving, millenials lazy, Russia expansionist, employees resistant to change?The current trend is to create a ‘counter-narrative’ - a rival virus to undermine the target narrative - with people lining up behind their favoured alternative before metaphorically shouting it from the highest point they can find. The risks of unintended consequences in this approach (division, fanaticism and conflict) should be obvious.
In an age of unlimited, zero cost communications we’re seeing another consequence: the people who are intended recipients of the counter-narratives are seeing through them and rejecting these attempts at coercion. For humans evolved through collaboration not coercion and have inherent aversion to being manipulated. This may explain the rise of ‘authenticity’ politics in western democracies currently threatening the established order.
Action - not manipulation
The answer is simple in theory, trickier in practice. Rather than imposing counter- narratives on the system leaders must seek to better understand why the current narratives dominate and then act to shift the environment, making unproductive ones unsustainable. Yet this must be done authentically - seeking narratives already in the system and amplifying them.
If debilitating narratives obstruct your role as leader you must refrain from trying to drive your own alternatives through propaganda or threats as this unleashes forces beyond your control. Instead, simply increase your awareness of the multiple perspectives existing within the system and discover the positives ones you feel will move parts of the system in the direction you want them to go and monitor for real-time impact. A discovery and amplification strategy supports growth of authentic counter-narratives that genuinely mobilise people.
So leaders - don’t play the narrative; play the issues underlining it.