Organizational narrative: Stories make humans uniquely social

Historian Yuval Noah Harari has an interesting theory about what makes us humans different from other animals and the species that is most advanced and adaptable.

After all, we’re not that much different from chimpanzees or Capuchin monkeys. If you put a human and a chimp in a Man Vs. Wild scenario, undoubtedly the chimp would win. Individually, we humans are not that impressive when compared to other animals.

The real difference comes from our collective behavior. As Harari states it in his TED talk,

“We are able to cooperate both flexibly and in very large numbers.”

Social insects like ants and bees behave collectively in huge numbers, but with little to no flexibility in their behavior. There is only one way that an ant colony or bee hive operates.

Social mammals like wolves and dolphins show flexibility in their collective behavior. Different groups hunt different prey in different ways. Social roles and structures change over time. But social mammals can’t cooperate in large numbers because they require intimate knowledge of the other group members with whom they want to cooperate. Ten thousand chimps create chaos, not a city.

By contrast, humans can cooperate in many, flexible and even unpredictable ways with other humans whom we have never met. Every time you make a retail exchange, or a drive a car in traffic, or vote in an election, you are cooperating with strangers in flexible ways. We can do this on a scale of millions if not billions.

What lies at the heart of our ability to cooperate flexibly and in large numbers? Our ability to collectively tell and believe in stories. As long as we all believe the same story, then we all follow the same rules and norms. Other animals communicate, but primarily to describe their immediate reality.

For Harari, money is one such collective human story. We all believe that metal discs and paper slips and electronic blips have a certain value and behave in certain ways. Because we all believe it, that’s how money works. Money then enables us to exchange a vast array of unlike items with strangers in flexible ways.

Religions and corporations and brands are other such stories.

According to Harari, nationalities are also stories that large groups believe in and use to guide their behavior and cooperation. I’d push that to the concept of citizenship at any level: neighborhood, city, county, state and region.

The stories we create and tell and believe about our citizenship influences how we cooperate with one another. This is why organizational storytelling in the public and social sectors is crucial. If we want to influence and better those sectors, we have to influence the stories from which they spring.

As Harari argues, the quality and even the fate of our objective reality depends today on the fictional entities that we have created such as corporations, governments, religions and economies. Change the stories, and you change the reality.

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