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8 November 2019

Trapped by simple stories: When our instinct for a coherent story kills our ability to see a real one

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

One of the things that defines us as humans is our propensity for stories. We love to tell them, to hear them, and to have them carry the answers to some of our most important and bewildering questions. We love them so much that we string together stories with a sort of once-upon-a-time feel about just about everything, with one thing leading naturally to the next. Looking back at something, we can tell a coherent story about it that makes it sound inevitable and neat. This is all beautiful—we even teach leaders to do this so that they can capture the hearts and minds of the people they lead. But it’s not without its challenges. The problem is twofold. First, we try to use that same skill looking forward (which in complexity you can’t, because you can’t tell which of the many, many possibilities will emerge until after it has emerged). Second, in reality the story wasn’t that clean or inevitable in the first place. We made it simple in our memory looking back and now we imagine an equally simple plot line going forward.

There is no way to stop experiencing the biological pulls toward simple stories. Like all of the mindtraps, these happen because mostly they have worked for us in the past—and continue to work often even in the present. They probably used to be even more effective in a simple world with fewer possibilities and interconnections. So you don’t need to stop using these stories; you just need to interrupt your belief in those times when they most seriously get in your way.

The key to unlocking the trap of simple stories is to make them more complex. One of the most powerful ways I’ve found to do this is to ask: How is this (annoying and frustrating) person a hero? When you realize that you’re carrying a simple story about a person or a group of people, it can be useful to name the role you think they’re playing and then intentionally switch the role and see what that allows. Believe that your colleague is always undermining you and trying to make you look bad in front of the boss? See if you can reframe her actions as the hero in her story rather than the villain in yours. She doesn’t go home at night and cackle over her cauldron about the ways she screwed you today. She tells herself she is doing things for the greater good, and that she is acting in a heroic way. See if you can take her perspective, even for a moment. Perhaps she sees you undermining her and she’s trying to show your boss her hard work. Or perhaps what you call undermining she calls critically examining or whatever.

The point isn’t to avoid telling stories. You can’t. The point isn’t even to avoid telling simple stories. I think that’s too hard too. The point is to notice your simple stories, remember they’re simple, believe in them less, and use this habit to multiply the options you are considering. This will weaken the jaws of the trap and give you more possibilities to consider.

How do you find yourself falling into the simple stories mindtrap? What is your favorite strategy for escaping?

See more (including the other four mindtraps and ways to escape them) in my Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity.

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