Organisation Development through Storytelling
“Information not passed through the heart is dangerous.” (Anita Roddick)
A story that changed something about me
A few years ago I read a short story that changed my attitude towards forming new habits. In the story a blogger talked about how she managed to forge, and then sustain, a new lifestyle which involved taking daily exercise. “Some days I just really didn’t feel like getting up early and go to the gym, but I told myself that any small step pointing to the new direction matters when it comes to forming a new habit. So sometimes I just drove to the gym in the morning and sat in the car park for a while before driving back home – without actually going in, just to keep the first, relatively easy step towards the new habit going.” And sure enough, one year later, going to the gym in the morning (and going in and doing some exercise!) is a natural part of the author’s life.
This story changed the way I look at forming new good habits. I always try to make sure that even on days when my willpower fails me and I am about to break the habit I still do one small step towards it – no matter how insignificant – just to keep it going.
The story also reminds me how powerful a tool storytelling can be. Isn’t it amazing how one simple story can stay with you for years, changing your attitude and becoming your lodestar in certain situations?
The importance of stories in organisational life
In our workplaces we often assume that being professional equates to being perfectly rational and logical. We feel that in a professional context we are expected to focus on facts and figures if we want to get a point across to colleagues. However, studies show that no matter how accurately we employ data and statistics, our colleagues will hardly remember any of these. On the other hand, they will better recall a relevant narrative that illustrates the issue in question, just like I still remember the story of the woman parked outside the gym.
You can’t inspire your team with numbers only. Facts and figures won’t ever have the same emotional impact as stories when it comes to motivating your team to embark on a new challenging mission. You need a good story to get their buy-in.
Using stories in our business communication within the company, as well as with customers and other strategic partners, can create a more open, energised and inspiring environment. No wonder that big multinational companies such as Microsoft, 3M and many others make storytelling part of their culture:
- Leaders participate in special courses where they learn how to use storytelling as part of their management toolbox.
- Stories are shared on the companies’ recruitment websites as part of their employer branding efforts.
- Organisations use stories in the framework of their rewards and recognitions system: excellent performance is documented in the form of stories and is shared among colleagues.
These are only a few examples that illustrate the many ways companies have embraced the art of storytelling.
The brain chemistry of storytelling
Narratives capture our attention immediately and they create an emotional reaction that facts and figures cannot possibly do. Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, and his research team found that even the simplest narrative can elicit a powerful empathic response by triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol (responsible for functions such as attention and keeping focus) and oxytocin (responsible for functions such as empathy).
So there is clear biological evidence that it is worth using stories if you want to capture your colleagues’ attention, and also if you want to inspire them and motivate them – in other words have an influence on them emotionally.
A positive response is even more heightened if your story is:
- personal, for instance, if you talk about your own personal experience or you share your personal reactions to it,
- told in an expressive language,
- follows a dramatic arc – even the shortest and simplest of your stories can be presented so that it gradually builds up towards a climax, thus making it more interesting to listen to.
So when can you actually use storytelling?
Four areas in which stories can be used as an organisational development tool
- Strengthening personal connection, creating trust
Storytelling can be of great help in any situation in the workplace when strengthening personal connections and building trust is crucial. Here are some examples:
- A new manager introducing themself to their new team would be wise to share a story or two instead of just listing their credentials. This less formal and more personal approach is a great first step towards building an open and trusting relationship.
- The facilitator at a team-building event should encourage participants to share personal success stories or stories about their biggest challenges. These two types of narratives make it much easier to strengthen the personal connection between colleagues.
- How about perking up those boring employee profiles on the intranet by adding a short story to each of them as a way of personal introduction? People are much more likely to read each other’s profile if they didn’t only contain boring data but also something personal.
- Communicating the vision
The literal meaning of the word ’vision’ is seeing something or imagining something visually. Yet most of so-called ‘company visions’ are presented to employees in such uninspiring ways that it is hard to ‘imagine’ anything. If you want people to align with the company’s long term goals and actively move towards them, you have to portray an emotionally moving ‘vision’ first.
A good story that paints a vivid, almost tangible picture of the future can make all the difference.
And no one better showed how to create a successful vision than Martin Luther King.
- Reinforcing the organisational culture, building a common identity
Stories can and should also be used to reinforce common norms and the values of the organisation, and to help build a common identity.
Maybe your company has defined a set of core values to capture the essence of the organisational culture. Maybe those values are even stated on posters on the walls: integrity, flexibility, teamwork, etc.
But these words are meaningless without examples, stories that show everyone what, for example, flexibility really looks like in this company. Maybe it was the story from last year when a big customer changed his mind about a product design at the last moment and yet the company still managed to react quickly and implement a redesign. Or maybe it was when a colleague from HR showed commendable flexibility during an important recruitment process and managed to hire a key expert in less than a month.
Such narratives make all the difference between mere tokenism and real values employees can identify with and work towards.
So don’t wait any longer, collect the stories that capture the essence of your culture and share them on as many forums as possible. The result will be a more cohesive company culture.
- Facilitating organisational change
In his famous book Leading Change, Dr John Kotter identifies the eight crucial steps every leader should follow if they want to facilitate a successful change process.
The first step is creating a sense of urgency. Change is uncomfortable, change is hard work; people don’t want to change unless they have to. They need to feel that it is absolutely necessary to move. The creation of a sense of urgency is therefore essential. Other authors refer to this part of the change communication as “creating a burning platform”.
But how can you do that? How can you ignite the desire to change?
Sharing good stories that show not only the dangers of the present situation but also what is to be gained from the changes is a very effective way to make people want to move. You might want to talk about cases when the company lost key customers to illustrate the need for urgent change. Or you can find other ways to illustrate with a story how the present state is no longer sustainable, that moving is necessary. Painting a vivid picture of the present difficulties can often be just as important as illustrating the bright future, as Martin Luther King did.
So next time you launch an organisational change initiative, start it by collecting and sharing stories that show how change is absolutely necessary.
There are many more areas where storytelling can inspire passion and stimulate engagement in your company. So get going. Collect your relevant stories and share them whenever you can and with whoever you can. You will be rewarded by your colleagues’ higher level of emotional involvement and motivation.