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Great Storytellers Are Not Great Decision-Makers... But They Can Be

Erik Larson Apr 26, 2023 7:45:00 AM
Executive making a decision with stakeholders.

Almost every successful business leader is an expert storyteller. They use stories to motivate employees and investors to achieve shared goals.

Excellent business leaders craft stories to give everyone a shared understanding of the core business realities so they can work efficiently and with purpose. A rare few exceptional leaders tell stories so powerful that they mimic Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field” and seem to change business reality to suit their visions.

However, when it comes to decision-making, all of these storytellers have a fatal flaw hinted at by the famous quote, “If I’d had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

The quote implies that the best letters, and stories, are edited until nothing is left to distract from a clean narrative arc and emotionally satisfying conclusion. In great stories, only the essence remains. In business, the essence is usually, “Our business faces a problem that we will overcome and become heroes.”

Telling great stories of the hero’s journey is a fantastic skill when aligning people around a shared goal. But telling a great story that charts a compelling path forward is a terrible way to make a decision.

Why Storytelling Is A Terrible Way To Make Decisions

First, great stories edit out distracting realities. That’s good when setting clear shared goals, but reality’s annoying distractions are dangerous landmines when making decisions. The selection bias of great stories makes decisions seem more straightforward, but reality always has a say. Reality versus story? Reality wins.

Next, great stories silence team players. Few people want to be gadflies ruining a great movie for everyone else by pointing out flaws. Most would rather have a shared experience focusing on clever lines, evocative images and leading performances. And so great stories invoke powerful groupthink, and groupthink kills great decision-making.

Finally, great stories cast deep shadows. The shadows obscure other alternatives, and if other options surface, they pale compared to the narrative. This narrative tunnel vision paints decisions as fait accompli, decided before the stakeholders learned of them, obscuring alternatives other than accepting the story as is.

When faced with this logic, great storytellers naturally recount traditional lore passed down by successful leaders through time – they’re busy and don’t have time for this, stories are fast, and their track record proves they have good judgment.

That is a powerful tale based on hard kernels of truth, but careful research draws a different conclusion.

Storytelling feels fast for decision-makers because great storytellers create stories intuitively and easily. However, everyone else must hear the story to be convinced. This need to convince turns decision-making into a story-driven internal sales process with attendant delays and meetings that often have political overtones. So, the net result of fast stories is slow decisions.

Research reveals this difference in speed. Decision-making processes that emphasize the distracting reality of missing information and the often conflicting perspectives of stakeholder inputs and multiple alternatives are twice as fast and require half as many meetings as a story-driven approach.

Storytelling decision-makers also ignore better alternatives 92 percent of the time. Diverse groups of people make better decisions 87 percent of the time. Adding just one more option for serious consideration increases decision success sixfold and cuts failure in half.

Yet the storytelling myth persists. Most executives are successful because they are great storytellers, so they believe in storytelling's power and mentor their successors to do the same. To leaders with storytelling hammers in hand, every decision looks like just another nail. And like track stars before the first four-minute mile, they are held back by the invisible shackles of their own reality distortion fields, not believing that it’s possible to decide twice as fast and succeed six times as often.

Questions Are The Answer

So, the next time someone comes to you with advice about making a good decision fast, don’t ask them for their gut feeling and help them craft a story to support it. Instead, set aside the storyteller’s hammer and ask these five questions:

  1. What goal are you trying to achieve?
  2. What are the most critical questions you need to answer?
  3. Whose input have you gathered?
  4. What alternatives have you considered?
  5. What information are you missing?

Tell stories when goals need to be set. Ask questions when decisions need to be made. Nothing can stop leaders who are great storytellers and great decision-makers.

This article was originally published in Forbes.