The Power of Storytelling in Organizational Development
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
On a popular TV game show recently, two teams competed to make the best product presentation for the top executives of a company. Both teams delivered a sharp, sophisticated pitch that highlighted the key attributes and benefits of the product. However, the team that won and truly moved the judges was the one that told a story about the product and narrated the experience of a target consumer.
Storytelling is a critical component to human development. Stories enthrall, capture imaginations and show how to make meaning of the world.They allow people to share passions, hardships and experiences, to connect in engaging ways and to inspire, communicate and teach each other. Stories have the magical quality of breaking down barriers between differing cultures and backgrounds and allowing people to relate to each other on certain universal truths.
While storytelling has been an integral form of communication in social spheres, the corporate world seems to underestimate its worth. Organizations focus on processes and numbers, rather than stories and experiences. In this age of constant change and uncertainty, storytelling is a critical skill not just for leaders, but for professionals at every level. Stories allow employees to connect with their colleagues in a way that enables them to appreciate, understand and remember information on an emotional level. It is estimated that 63 percent of attendees remember stories and only 5 percent remember statistics, according to business authors Dan and Chip Heath. One doesn’t have to look far to see the immense impact of storytelling in the corporate world. Business literature is filled with examples of visionary leaders who inspired extraordinary achievements by their ability to relate to their employees through powerful delivery of analogies and experiences. Steve Jobs was a master at this. His introduction of the Macintosh in 1984 is one of the best product unveilings in recent history. He knew what made a good story and used all those elements in delivering his pitch. He introduced an antagonist, whose downfall must come through a hero. His delivery was impeccable. He knew how to shift his tone to build audience excitement and passion, so that by the end of it, his audience was able to see themselves as those agents of change and believed they had a critical role in the movement.
STORIES DRIVE CHANGE
Storytelling is a powerful engagement tool during organizational change to ensure that the key messages resonate with the stakeholders who are impacted, leading to more meaningful buy-in for the change. Organizational stories can be used to transform opinions, attitudes and behaviors.
Employees are constantly bombarded with change in the modern day corporate environment. Trying to win them over with facts and figures, instructions or renewed mission statements are of little impact when change fatigue has set in. In these situations, stories that speak to the spirit of the matter and portray the critical role of the employee in enabling success can move hearts and changeminds. It allows them to internalize the key concepts through visualization. Stories bring concepts to life and enable employees to experience what change may feel like. Human resources (HR) and organizational development (OD) professionals are more closely connected with the human elements of the organization and can influence behaviors through powerful narratives. When those stories are formed and shared, others can be equipped to deliver a consistent and articulate message to the workforce. Storytellers become change agents, who then deputize other change agents with their stories.
Managing large-scale transformational change requires a clear vision and consistent, impactful messaging that is easy to communicate. When the reasons behind a transformation are wellunderstood and accepted, true buy-in for the change starts to happen. Developing an initial story that addresses the what, why, how and when for the transformation can provide a common and powerful narrative that can be used to consistently explain the change to the stakeholders. As the transformation journey progresses, the story can serve as a building block to add personal experiences to and make it more meaningful for those who aspire to grow with the change. Giving managers and employees the ability to make the story their own empowers them to bring life to the story and ultimately makes them better storytellers.
A LEADER’S ROLE
For any transformation, effective employee engagement starts at the top. It is the responsibility of leadership to engage the workforce and inspire them to move the organization toward greatness. Leaders need to help employees connect to the organization’s mission and goals.
The founders of Sunrise Senior Living, Paul and Terry Klaassen were experts at this. They told powerful stories that helped their employees understand and appreciate their organization’s heritage. According to a former employee, Paul and Terry frequently told stories of how they built the company, always with personal warmth that rallied the crowd. They talked about their inspiration for taking care of seniors from their community in Holland and how they were supported by their church community and raised their family as part of the business. Their stories highlighted how they had done every job in the senior living community and could understand what was being asked of their employees. They also reiterated their passion and mission for quality resident care.
Similarly, a top leader who was involved in the historical merger of two giant multinationals was loved by his employees for his humor, frankness and genuine concern. During the intense and often tumultuous period of the merger, he didn’t shy away from answering difficult questions from employees during live public forums, such as department all-hands meetings. He never gave just a yes or no answer, but discussed what led up to certain decisions at the C-suite level and always explained how each decision supported the strategic goals of the organization. His discussions were engaging and in plain language that the employees could clearly understand and retain. He invited each and every one of his 5,000 employees to call or meet with him personally to discuss their own stories as a result of the merger. Through his stories, he was able to connect with each employee at a personal level, while inspiring a sense of buy-in and confidence in the decisions of the leadership and the future of the merged organization.
Great leaders use stories on a daily basis to engage, inspire and connect with their employees. Their stories show them and the organization as agents of change, rather than supporters of the status quo. No large-scale change is without its fair share of fear, uncertainty and chaos, but leaders can leverage these emotional elements to their advantage in a purposeful story.
Telling a powerful and purpose-driven story is an art form. It requires finding the right balance of content that excites, informs and inspires, and pairing that with a fluid and impactful delivery that maintains the audiences’ attention. Organizational storytelling is challenging as it must appeal to employees both at an intellectual and emotional level.
Storytelling is a skill that can be learned and fine-tuned over time with diligent practice, self-awareness and attention to certain key principles. Effective storytelling and impactful stories include the following elements:
There is a clearly identified intention and context for the story. The story means to inspire a certain behavior or perspective, teach a skill or concept, inform of a particular change, get sponsorship and buy-in, etc. A clear purpose and central message helps make the story compelling and meaningful. Organizational stories should relate back to business objectives and core organizational values.
The story is authentic and resonates with and motivates the target audience, rather than just the storyteller. The most valuable stories told in organizations are created from personal experience, from ideas and questions concerning the present, and from a vision about the future.
The story is able to capture and hold the audience’s attention with vivid descriptions. It allows the audience to identify with the characters and to be transported into their world.
The story has a powerful introduction that creates eagerness and expectation. The storyteller creates a listening space that sets the tone and creates an environment of reception. The phrase, “Once upon a time,” instantly captivates children in anticipation of the upcoming story.
The story has drama and tension. Every great story has ups and downs, conflicts, failures and battles. The story’s characters must look deep within themselves and use their inner strength to overcome these obstacles and learn lessons. In the case of Steve Jobs’ introduction of the Macintosh, it was IBM’s growing dominance and perceived growing monopoly in the personal computing space that was a threat to the future of this industry, which Apple had to help overcome.
Stories have the power to change hearts and minds and enable major breakthroughs and development to happen. The interaction between the storyteller and the audience can enable impactful collaborative learning, which can then lead to informed change and uplift the organization and its employees. In the day and age of constant change, stories provide a vital link to an organization’s past and where it wants to go. Therefore, storytelling is a critical skill that must be cultivated at all levels in the workforce of the future