The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Typewriter What is Your StoryIf you ever spent any time with Andy Martin, you know his story.  “I get things done, no matter what the impediments.”  Andy talks proudly about the many times he’s managed to pull off big projects, in the face of internal political pressures, layoffs, mergers, and a changing competitive environment.

The stories others in the organization tell about Andy, however, bear little resemblance:

“Andy works hard, but he’s ineffectual.  Someone almost always has to step in to help get things back on track.”

“Andy is a doer, but not a leader.  He can’t get people lined up behind him, and he can’t get the political forces working together.”

“Andy forges ahead, sticking to his plan, but he misses the signals on what’s going wrong.”

Andy had fashioned a story of himself as a strong leader, overcoming obstacles effectively to assure important strategic work was accomplished for the organization.  And he’d come to believe his own press.  What he’d failed to do was to check his ‘facts’.  He hadn’t even checked his gut.

The stories we tell ourselves are not all heroic.  Sometimes we repeat stories demonstrating under-confidence or difficulty making decisions, or other evidence of our imperfections.  And we probably are equally guilty of not fact-checking those stories, either.

It’s easy to establish the stories about ourselves.  We’re asked to define our strengths – and areas for improvement – in performance reviews and in interviews, and social chatter at business gatherings is often about accomplishments.  We get the ‘elevator story’ pretty well honed.

But being out of synch with how others view us sends confusing signals about leadership capacity – how self-aware is he?  Or if self-aware, why is she trying to plaster over her weaknesses with bravado?  Or why is he emphasizing weaknesses – is there something we’re missing?  These are significant red flags about ability to develop as a leader.

Might it be time to do an assessment about the stories you tell yourself?  Here are some tips for reviewing and updating your stories:

  • Be sure you know what stories you’re telling. Our stories become so second nature that they’re like our skin: we don’t even know we’re wearing it.  So you first step is to find out what you are putting out there.  “What do you hear me saying about my strengths, weaknesses, and accomplishments?”  “What do you think I believe are my strengths and capabilities – and what makes you think that?”
  • Get a well-rounded picture of yourself. Consider getting a 360-degree assessment that reviews a full range of leadership capabilities and requests feedback from a broad set of people that see your work up close.  Look closely at the comments as well as the numerical values.  Use a third party, like a coach or mentor, to help you create a profile of the person described by the 360.
  • Identify where your stories don’t ring true. Compare the 360 profile you’ve created to the clues you find in performance reviews and development plans.  Where is there consistency in the messages being sent about your strengths and needs for growth?  Then compare these to your stories – the things you believe about yourself.  Where does it appear you are disconnected from what others perceive as reality – either positively or less so?
  • Re-align your stories with perceived reality. Begin to re-craft your elevator story.  Ask trusted colleagues how they would introduce you to someone important for you to impress, while giving a realistic picture of your abilities.  Identify the stories that demonstrate the strengths others perceive in you; look to the comments in the 360 to trigger some of those stories.  Work with a coach or mentor to select the most impactful and representative descriptions of who you are, to elaborate on them with a few stories, and to tighten them into a good cocktail party introduction of yourself – short and sweet.

Stories are some of the most powerful of communications.  When they are mismatched with perceived reality, they can create significant churn in the environment – and poor impressions of the story teller.  But when lined up nicely with reality, personal stories are retold willingly.  It’s how legends are made.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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