We recently came across this interesting article by Jane E Dutton and Julia Lee, “The Benefits of Saying Nice Things About Your Colleagues”.
The authors make a great case for positively “narrating” our colleagues, saying that “the stories we hear from others that highlight our unique contributions can help us find purpose in our relationships with our colleagues and our work”.
They suggest four key opportunities to tell positive stories about our colleagues:
- first impressions – introducing new team members in a way that builds connections as soon as they start in the team,
- new projects – highlighting the value that each team member brings to a project in initial project team introductions,
- when a colleague is undermined – using this opportunity to reinforce the colleague’s value in the organisation, and
- endings and exits – creating meaning when a colleague resigns or is made redundant, by sharing positive stories about the colleague’s contribution.
The authors provide a particularly powerful example of using positive narration when a colleague is undermined, in the story of “Sasha” and “Svetlana”, two new managers who found it difficult to have their voices heard in a male-dominated work team. The article reports, “They decided to publicly support each other and others whose voices were often not heard. For example, when Svetlana proposed a new plan to reduce costs, Sasha followed up by repeating and elaborating on Svetlana’s idea, giving full credit to Svetlana. … These actions shifted the way each manager saw themselves …”
In relation to endings and exits, the authors explain that sharing positive stories can extend beyond the immediate team, to potential new workplaces for the former colleague. The authors give the example of “Sipho”, whose colleagues were encouraged to contribute positive stories about his contribution, and then found that this prompted and empowered them to recommend him to new employers.
As well as the practical support for the individual in a situation like this, the positive narrative approach can help to maintain a connection as the colleague moves to the next opportunity. The approach also mitigates some of the potential damage to relationships between the remaining team members, creating a better outcome overall for the team than can be the case when a departing colleague is ushered straight out the door.
We all have examples of the damage done by dismissive or negative stories about colleagues in the workplace. This article makes an excellent case for taking an intentional, positive approach to workplace narratives.