Whether it’s your significant other or your company, there are lots of memories swept into these stories: the day you met, the day you quit your job and decided to start a new venture, hiring your first employees, getting engaged, signing a lease on an office, going on the honeymoon, or the night that first big rush of orders came through and suddenly you realized this idea was taking off.
This means that there are lots of places for happy, funny, and interesting reflections. It also means there are lots of places to start reconstructing the story differently when there is turmoil.
And that’s a problem.
Lessons from the Love Lab
Regarding what happens in a marriage, I didn’t come up with this idea: author John Gottman (who studies married couples in his “Love Lab”) talks about it frequently, calling “bad memories” one of the signs he uses to predict divorce (he can predict with 91 percent accuracy, so don’t ask him if you don’t want to know . . .). Happy couples with a healthy relationship remember the early times fondly, he says. They even cast their struggles and missteps in a positive light—talking about the way they got through it together and how it made them better.
But what about struggling couples? What about after emotional disconnection, negativity, and ambivalence has seeped in? Often, what happens then is that the positive light starts to fade and the dingy glow of blame and disappointment takes its place. Basically, your present feelings color the past. That your husband was 15 minutes late for the wedding isn’t a charming anecdote anymore: it’s yet one more example of his inability to follow through. That your wife bought you that ridiculous sweater your first Christmas together isn’t a funny thing you crack up about anymore: it’s just more evidence that she never understood you. What you once thought of as happy-go-lucky, you now judge as childish. What you once described as impulsive, you now label irresponsible. And so on, until the examples become bigger and bigger and take on layers of meaning you never gave them before.
Or worse yet, you can’t even really remember the details of the story anymore.
I’ve noticed that almost exactly the same thing that can happen with companies. The turmoil may revolve around the balance sheet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not reflected in the heart. It could be market share loss and cash problems—or on the flip side, growing pains. It could be culture shifts, a new leadership team, or any number of other things that cause turmoil in a business (really, what doesn’t cause turmoil in a business?). The phenomenon is the same: the present feelings of unease or hurt or mistrust or frustration cause people in the company to cast the past in a less flattering light. They (and by “they,” I mean you, too) may start to rewrite those early stories of how the business was built. So, what you had always thought of as building the business organically and learning as you went now seems like being ill-prepared and unfocused. If the company had lofty goals that drove motivation early on, now they can look like the seeds of bitterness if they haven’t been met. The reverse causes heartache too: a company grows so fast and changes character so much that the original story no longer inspires or feels related to what the company is about (have you met a Wal-Mart employee lately who feels connected to the story of Sam Walton?).
Or, worse yet, no one even knows the story anymore.
I know a little bit about both of these things: rewriting history in marriage and business. While I definitely can’t solve Wal-Mart’s problem—and maybe can’t even solve my own—I do think there are some pretty good solutions out there if you see that this is happening in your company.
- Understand why you (or others) are rewriting the story. What is going on NOW that is making you or the people in your company think about the past differently? I mean, it’s so basic, it seems silly to say. But so many business owners or managers are shockingly un-self-aware. The chatter matters: know what it is.
- Sort out what’s changed about the story. So, first: how are YOU remembering the story? Notice if you are telling it the same way you would have told it five years ago (or one year ago or one month ago, for that matter). And if you’re telling it differently now, ask yourself why. Stories are dynamic in nature, so they can absolutely take on different meanings as your business grows. The red flag is when a once-positive story because a negative story tinged with regret and failure.
- Make sure people actually know the story. I worked with an organization earlier this year, and did a bunch of interviews with some of their members. Many of the members were basically members out of habit (or had their own reasons for supporting the organization). But most of them didn’t actually know the story of the organization (which was a pretty great story). Not knowing the story to begin with is perhaps even worse than changing the story. What are you doing to tell the story to the people you need to be most invested in it?
- Get the tone right. The facts are important, but I honestly think the tone is more important, because it’s the emotional component. To predict divorce, Gottman doesn’t look at how often couples fight. Or even how loudly they yell. That doesn’t even really matter. Mostly what he looks at is the tone of how they communicate: is their first word of almost every conversation laced with bitterness, resentment, and contempt? That’s a much bigger red flag than breaking plates because it has an element of seething to it. Likewise, with a company, it’s really about HOW people are telling the story: what is their tone of voice? Do they speak with derision or pride?
Listen, I am the absolute last person you should be taking any relationship advice from right now. But what a story means for a company? THAT I know. So be careful with those early memories. Don’t let them get revised right under your nose. They are far too important to tinker with.