Queensland academic Dr Clare Burns has discovered the value of storytelling in the corporate world through her research.
Humans have always told stories to share personal experiences and culture, convey morals and truths, move hearts and minds with inspiration, and to entertain – but new research is showing the value of storytelling in the corporate world to improve services and, according to one Queensland academic, the study’s findings also have value for everyday life.
Griffith University Lecturer Dr Clare Burns has investigated ethical decision-making in finance organisations, particularly in their service of Indigenous customers who live in rural and remote areas. The research was conducted in the wake of the Banking Royal Commission, which found a number of unscrupulous practices among banks and other financial institutions.
Dr Burns told 96five’s Jess Drummond that among these practices was the use of high-pressure sales tactics to sell “dodgy funeral insurance” to Indigenous customers – that is, products that were not right for them and that they couldn’t use.
“Sometimes [financial organisations] didn’t just sell them one dodgy funeral insurance, but two dodgy funeral insurance [products],” said Dr Burns.
“While I’m not a medical professional, I don’t think any of us die twice or need those types of funeral plans!”
Meanwhile, one institution was found to be exemplary in its practices, and Dr Burns’ research looked at what was different about this organisation, why its approach was ethical, and what other service providers could learn from this.
“What we found was that QSuper – that’s an Australian, in particular Queensland superannuation organisation – were held up as being really different in their approach, and [the Royal Commission] actually said that more organisations need to be doing what QSuper is, so we wanted to find out what was different about QSuper.”
Dr Burns says her study involved interviewing people at top and middle management levels as well as those on the front line. An emerging theme from these discussions took her by surprise.
“We were quite surprised because one of the key things that we found out was that storytelling – as in truth-telling, sometimes what we call governance or something that helps guide us – was happening at the middle level, at the top level, and [among] people on the front line. People were telling more stories and they were listening to the Indigenous customers… and that was a key thing that was making a difference,” she says.
Dr Burns also found two key questions that would guide the organisation’s approach: “What is the right thing to do by the customer?” and “How would I feel if this was my mother or my father or an uncle?”
The research revealed that QSuper employees would also visit the rural and remote Indigenous communities – something that proved to be an eye-opening experience.
Despite the research taking place in the financial services industry, Dr Burns says people from all walks of life can take valuable lessons away from the study.
“The first is storytelling, that there needs to be that ability for people to tell their stories and that safe place to listen – and I’d really encourage people, if they have families, to think about, ‘What’s the story of my family? How would I be able to tell that in one or two minutes? What are some of the morals of my family that I want other generations to know?… Is there anything that I might learn from the way that [children] tell the story?’
“Another thing is, continuing to ask that question: ‘What is the right thing to do?’ I know since doing that research I have that phrase sitting in my head. I know that you’re a Christian organisation so morals are really important – but also if you think about the Bible, Jesus always spoke in parables, to help people understand. So really, when you’re telling a story, you’re telling it so that you’re understanding the morals.”
Disclaimer: Clare JM Burns received $5000 funding from ECSTRA and the Australasian Business Ethics Network to explore ethical decision making in Indigenous finance. No direct or indirect commercial benefits to the researchers conducting this study occurred; however, in the spirit of full disclosure, the lead researcher, Clare JM Burns, wishes to state she was employed by the Queensland Government from 2012 to 2014, where QSuper was the default super fund. QSuper has since become part of Australian Retirement Trust.
Feature Image: Mike Erskine on Unsplash
Listen to the full interview in the player above.