The dark side of stories

Auvinen et al. (2013) study leadership manipulation through storytelling. While many stories are told to influence others, “manipulation is about influencing someone so that he or she does not know the intention of the manipulator" (417). Various forms of deceptive behavior, such as lying or providing misleading information, come under the category of manipulation. Since stories have a powerful subconscious influence, it may be hard to determine when subjects do or do not know the intention of the manipulator. In the context of using stories in accounting ethics education, the students undoubtedly realize the intention of the stories to illustrate and instruct. However, the use of stories about unethical behavior and its consequences may actual help normalize unethical behavior. In any case, manipulation is not necessarily unethical, depending on the motives and the consequences. While it is questionable that any story tells the whole truth, presumably leaders and others are aware when a story deliberately falsifies or misleads or suppresses important information.

Takala and Auvinen (2014) explain that stories in organizations are often connected to leadership power and authority and may indicate a softer and less direct form of leadership intervention. The narrator of a story assumes a position of power to influence others through the constructions of the story. “The narrator may pursue good as well as bad outcomes with his/ her story” (Takala and Auvinen 2014). For example, Takala and Auvinen (2014) explain how the image of Hitler as a heroic leader was developed through “collective and public storytelling, which took advantage of existing national salvation legends and semi-religious expectations . . . produced and maintained largely by the force of stories" (4).

Auvinen et al. (2013) conducted a field study to identify and study manipulative stories told by managers in an organization. About half of the manager subjects had engaged in manipulative storytelling practices such as humorous stories, meant to diffuse tensions and reconcile employees to poor working conditions, pseudo-participative stories giving personnel a false impression of free choice and participation in decision making, seductive manipulation by telling overly positive stories, and pseudo-empathetic stories where managers pretend to empathize with employee concerns to reduce conflict. The manipulative stories relied on outright lying as well as misinformation and disinformation, which is the sharing of truthful but purposefully misleading information. For example, a manager explains the use of a deceptive story:

The Oldsmobile car manufacturer has been experimenting with all kinds of alternative engines in its time. In those days there were steam engines and combustion engines of numerous different kinds. He had all the potential engine technologies under development at the factory, but then luck had it that his factory burned down. And the fire destroyed everything except for a car that was driven by a petrol engine. And he no longer had any money to develop the others, so the one and only thing he had left was the petrol engine, which was the technology that ultimately made the breakthrough. The point of my story is: what fire do we need to identify that single, clear focus. I've sought to ask them what would be the one thing they wished would survive.


The stories within organizations are a part of the process of creating myth — “a set of interlocking stories, rituals, rites, and customs that inform and give the pivotal sense of meaning and direction to a community of culture" (Wines and Hamilton 2009, 440). These mythic systems provide a framework for the sense-making activities of employees and others, but they also reflect a certain set of ideological assumptions and frame discourse in ways that potentially hide a number of potential concerns from consideration. For example, Rhodes et al. (2010) examine the role of stories in normalizing layoff practices in a struggling organization and removing them from ethical examination. A typical example from an employee says, "And see I wouldn’t fight it because I just look at it thinking, it’s not a big, huge profitable company that is trying to make money. It’s a company struggling to succeed so I see what they're doing is for the benefit of the staff plus the stockholders, so I don’t see what they’re doing is wrong” (543). While this fatalistic acceptance was common in the struggling firm, very different stories could have been told to explain the events and their meaning. The downsizing and layoffs in an organization were understood by a plot that Rhodes et al. (2010) call “the inevitable fall from grace,” and the layoffs were therefore only examined within a procedural framework. In this way, the stories served to “shelter organizations from moral responsibility for their actions” (547). Another example of the use of stories to create myths that frame events is the Horatio Alger stories told a hundred years ago about a “fantasy world of rags to riches” (Wines and Hamilton 2009). While the young heroes of the Horatio Alger stories were advised to work hard, their massive elevations in fortune generally resulted from some implausible opportunity offered by a successful businessman — not something that happened frequently or at all outside of this myth.

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