What's Your Story ? - How Personal Narratives Can Help Ease Career Changes

We all construct narratives about ourselves. Among their many other uses, such self-narratives help us to define where we have come from, and help us to navigate where we might be going. Of course, the types of stories we construct can make a huge difference in how well we cope with change -- especially the types of often life-altering change that a career transition involves. Chaired Professor of Organisational Behaviour and qualified psychologist and sociologist Herminia Ibarra, together with writer and authority on storytelling Kent Lineback, concentrate on the wider significance of the psycho-dynamics behind the construction of our self-narratives in times of career transition.

by Herminia Ibarra, Kent Lineback
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

We all construct narratives about ourselves. Among their many other uses, such self-narratives help us to define where we have come from, and help us to navigate where we might be going. Of course, the types of stories we construct can make a huge difference in how well we cope with change -- especially the types of often life-altering change that a career transition involves. When a professional has neither quite left an old position, nor fully arrived at a new one, that person is in dire need of the ability to tell a compelling personal story to bosses, colleagues, or even friends and family members.

This helps immeasurably in boosting that individual's belief in their motives, character and overall capacity to achieve their goals, among many other things. Chaired Professor of Organisational Behaviour and qualified psychologist and sociologist Herminia Ibarra, together with writer and authority on storytelling Kent Lineback, concentrate on the wider significance of the psycho-dynamics behind the construction of our self-narratives in times of career transition.

Seldom in our lives are self-promoting and self-fulfilling stories needed more than at such junctures. But even the most successful and insightful of people can routinely undermine their own cause by failing to be engaging. Too often, they end up coming across as unconfident or wishy-washy at one extreme, or pompous and overbearing on the other. Either situation will likely result in a failure to inspire trust, empathy or confidence from others when these are most needed. "Without a story", the authors argue, "there [is] no context to render career facts meaningful, no promise of a third act in which achieving a goal (getting a job, for instance) would resolve the drama".

In their engaging and highly readable work, Ibarra and Lineback make considered comparisons of the elements of successful self-narratives with classic stories: "notice what moves a [good] story along. It's challenge, conflict, tension, discontinuity. What hooks us in a movie or a novel is the turning point, the break with the past, the fact that the world has changed in some ... way that will force the protagonist to discover and reveal who he truly is."

The authors provide examples of the narratives of professionals who can meaningfully and empathetically convey the turning points in their lives, both as workers and as members of families. The reader is not presented with dry, egotistical recounts of these peoples' academic credentials, professional pedigrees, etc. " precisely the types of self-narratives that so many people would tend to relate when asked in a conference, meeting, interview or wherever to "tell their story" in a setting that could do them varying degrees of either good or harm.

Ibarra and Lineback go on to stress the importance of emphasising both continuity and causality when constructing one's narrative; listeners are generally very sensitive to lapses in coherence. They urge people in need of well-crafted stories during their personal transition phases to:

· Cite multiple reasons for what they want. For example, present both personal and professional reasons for deciding to make a change.

· Be sure to point out any explanations that extend back in time. Be able, for example, to explain why you couldn't pursue your goal earlier.

· Reframe your past in light of the change you're seeking to make. While one should of course strive to be forthright and honest, we all create different versions of our life stories that focus on or downplay, include or exclude, different aspects of what has happened to us.

· Choose a story form that lends itself to your tale of reinvention. In describing transition and reinvention, it can be helpful to present one's story in a form familiar to most listeners.

The authors also provide two supplementary box stories: "Key Elements of a Classic Story" and "Does Your Résumé Tell a Story?"

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