So What’s Your Story?

“Homework? Ah, yes, I did my homework, but it didn’t quite make it here. Why? Well, my dog ate the homework. We took him to the vet to get the homework back, but the surgery took so long I was late to school, and I think I’ll have to leave school early because my dog died and I imagine it will take weeks before I can get over the sadness enough to concentrate in school.”

Kids come up with the wildest stories to explain why they are late, why they didn’t finish homework and why they can’t come to school. It’s cute when they do it. It’s not so cute when adults do it.

Stories are something we make up or a real occurrence that we offer as an excuse for why we didn’t do what we said we were going to do. Stories are everywhere and have become so popular; we seem to think they are acceptable. They’re not. The result hasn’t changed, and the fact is that circumstances could always have been overcome if there was solid commitment.

The top ten list of favorite workplace stories are:

10. My dog threw up right before I was supposed to leave.

9. That’s not my job.

8. I’m only the secretary.

7. I’m only the president.

6. It’s accounting’s fault. They always screw up.

5. Is it Tuesday already?

4. I thought somebody else was handling this.

3. I can’t help it—my mother was controlling during potty training.

2. Hey, but we’re working hard.

1. What did they expect? I’m a last born.

The reality is that there is a great story or excuse for everything that goes wrong. The problem is that we fall captive to believing that because there is a good story, it’s acceptable.

Successful people and successful organizations understand that when they give their word, they stand behind it. Whether they have to charter a plane, drive through a snowstorm, or leap tall buildings in a single bound, they understand that their word is good–whatever they said that they would do is as good as done.

To change from “stories” to “results” in your organization, there needs to be a change in vocabulary. Whenever someone begins a story, it needs to be pointed out that it is only that…a story. The language has to change to “How can we?”

A manufacturing team was given an order that seemed completely unrealistic to fill. As they got together for their management team meeting, the room began to fill with comments of surrender and excuses. “It just can’t be done. We can’t get the supplies in time. We don’t have the manpower. Even if we could produce the order, shipping can’t possibly handle it in time: stories, stories, and more stories.

Then Rick spoke up. “How can we?” “We just can’t; we can’t get the input product on time. We can’t get enough production people to work the hours. We can’t …..we can’t…..”

And Rick repeated, “well, how can we?” “Well, we could ask several vendors to get us the supplies, but then we still couldn’t possibly assemble in time.”

“Ok, that’s a start. We can work with several vendors to get supplies. Now, how can we overcome the assembly obstacle.” “We can’t because we don’t have enough people, and we don’t have enough lines to handle the order.”

Rick stood up. “Ok, we have heard several reasons why we can’t. Quite frankly, we don’t have time for the reasons why we can’t. Now I want to hear why we can.” Suddenly the ideas began to flow, from bringing in college students for an additional shift, restructuring the line to make sure it’s more effective, to having the management staff work the line for the next week. The ideas began to roll.

Two weeks later, the order was fulfilled. What couldn’t happen happened. The excuses and stories weren’t allowed. In their place were strategies and attitudes of accomplishment.

People who live in their stories of what can’t be done always prove themselves right. People who live in the conversation of “how can we?” also prove themselves right. The difference is that the people making it happen are singing in the parking lot on the way home. Accomplishment feels so good. The only thing between you and accomplishment are your stories.

Next time you hear someone in your workplace give a story of why something could not, or will not, happen, just tell them your homework story.

Roxanne Emmerich

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