I heard Lisbeth Schorr once say, "No data without stories and no stories without data." She was pointing out both the sterile nature of numbers and the misleading nature of stories when describing populations. As we seek to describe human behavior in organizations her advice is important to keep in mind. The percentage of employees who indicate on a survey that they are satisfied with their work doesn't tell me how Bill becomes and stays engaged each day. An anecdote about Jane's excitement and success in a new job doesn't tell me the level of engagement in that organization.
Valerie Gribben, a medical student, writes in the New York Times about the meaning that fairy tales, have in her hospital rotations. Fairy tales are, for many of us, our earliest exposure to stories. Ms. Gribben had put aside these fables when she became a serious medical student, but now sees them in the characters she meets each day. She writes:
I found my way back to stories. The Grimm fairy tales once seemed as if they took place in lands far, far away, but I see them now in my everyday hospital rotations. I’ve met the eternal cast of characters. I’ve taken down their histories (the abandoned prince, the barren couple) or seen their handiwork (the evil stepmother, the lecherous king).
Fairy tales are, at their core, heightened portrayals of human nature, revealing, as the glare of injury and illness does, the underbelly of mankind. Both fairy tales and medical charts chronicle the bizarre, the unfair, the tragic. And the terrifying things that go bump in the night are what doctors treat at 3 a.m. in emergency rooms.
So I now find comfort in fairy tales. They remind me that happy endings are possible. With a few days of rest and proper medication, the bewildered princess left relaxed and smiling, with a set of goals and a new job in sight. The endoscopy on my cross-eyed confidante showed she was cancer-free.
They also remind me that what I’m seeing now has come before. Child endangerment is not an invention of the Facebook age. Elder neglect didn’t arrive with Gen X. And discharge summaries are not always happy; “Cinderella” originally ended with a blinding, and Death, in his tattered shroud, waits at the end of many journeys.
Whether hospital patients or managers in organizations, it is easy to relate to people as statistics. This many kidney transplants; that many strokes. This many salespeople met their goals; that many have stayed in sales more than four years. But what about their stories, grim or otherwise? What can we learn from their tales of love and loss, caring and neglect, dispare and joy? Crunch the numbers...but also look into the heart and soul of each person.