Stats Lie Pt 6: Storytelling, Stats, and Org Culture

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I’ve been on a bit of a blogging hiatus due to directing the national staff conference for my ministry (Epic), but excited to try to get back in the swing of things and continue on in the series I started entitled “Stats Lie.” Here’s part six on the relationship between statistics, storytelling, and culture shaping.

Statistics and measurements play a pretty central role in the shaping or forming of ministry culture.  Most of us recognize this as it relates to the reinforcement of priorities, values, objectives, or the ultimate vision.  But there’s another way statistics and measurements influence culture and that is through storytelling.

Storytelling takes many forms within organizations.  Frequently it’s through short narratives or anecdotes. Those are explicit examples and easiest to identify as stories, representative narratives embodying success or our vision of what we are about.  But stats tell stories too.

One of the most important things we can remember when leading organizationally is that statistics reflect underlying narratives.  And a rule of narratives is that what stories we tell or don’t tell will dictate explicitly or wield subtle power over the culture of the community moving forward.

This is where I really like the work of Walter Brueggemann, who demonstrates powerfully in his writing the relationship between power and storytelling.  If we only allow positive stats or stats that help us feel good, then we are shaping a culture that will increasingly grow uncomfortable in assessing the status quo and current reality.

But there’s other ways too – when stats are only used in storytelling to motivate people to accomplish what is not going well, the use of statistics will increasingly shape a culture of performance, guilt, shame, or uncomfortable goal orientedness at the expense of meaning.

Statistics, as we use them to tell the story of where we are and where we are going, have the power to define our perception of our current reality as well as our perception of where we need to go.  Sometimes it’s what stats we choose.  Sometimes it’s how we interpret them.  Sometimes it’s how we communicate them.

There’s a stewardship of statistics that needs to be examined because they impact what we as people believe about ourselves as well.  In the numerical as well as conventional narratives shared, we can find ourselves internalize messages about our worth, our significance, our purpose.  Now while we know we should let those things be defined by stats or what we do – that’s what power does to people.  It wields a psychological influence that seeks to mold people to its version of “truth.”  We are all vulnerable to being influenced by organizational narratives, intended or otherwise, about what is of utmost value to the organization.

So the way we use statistics shapes organizational culture in more ways than just reinforcing organizational priorities.  We can create at least three kinds of dysfunctional cultures through our statistical storytelling. We can create…

  1. “Doing” cultures in which workaholism and performance is lifted up and rewarded
  2. “Anxious” cultures in which no goal is big enough and to rest or be content with where we are in time is viewed as unspiritual
  3. “Lazy” cultures in which our fear of accomplishment, measurements,  and the stewardship of power leads us to avoid leading to hard places.

Statistics are storytelling and they need to be stewarded so that we can assess our own leadership and motivate others in human and ethical ways. Statistics do not just keep us “on track” but over time they wield an an existential impact on what people begin to identify as valuable and meaningful in both the organization and also life as a whole.

What kind of an impact do stats have on you? Do you find yourself slowly becoming defined by them?

How is your use of stats and measurements influencing the culture that you are seeking to shape?  Are they bearing fruit in keeping with both your objectives AS WELL AS your values?



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