Leaders should be great storytellers.
Why do I say that?
Well, what do great stories do?
They make us think.
They make us feel.
They make us care.
They can even make us take a side.
For centuries, people, groups, and cultures have used stories for a variety of purposes, right? They used them to pass on their history. They used them as instructional tools. They used them to inspire belief.
As many of you know, it’s my view that organizations, rightly understood, are communities of humans. Given that that’s the case, it’s only logical to conclude that stories ought to have a place within organizations, just as they do within any other group of people.
But what exactly is that place? And how and why should they be used within the context of organizational culture? What do they accomplish?
I’m so glad you asked.
Leaders Should Be Great Storytellers because Stories Can Inspire
This is how movies become blockbusters. This is why, after hearing stories of heroism, we’re moved to action, driven by some unseen — and yet very felt — force. We’ve been inspired by the story. There are countless examples of inspirational stories that have moved people, groups, and even the world, to action.
[tweetthis hidden_hashtags=”#leadership #companyculture #hr”]Leaders should be great storytellers b/c stories can inspire.[/tweetthis]
Leaders Should Be Great Storytellers because Stories Can Educate
The Boy Who Cried Wolf. We all likely know the story, and the reason is because at some point, someone probably used it as a teaching tool.
The principle is a very basic, but also very effective, one. Stories can be used as educational tools. They can bring ideas to life in ways that simply stating something cannot. Within the organizational context, stories can be infinitely more effective in actually communicating ideas than a policy manual. (And no, I’m not saying you shouldn’t have policy manuals. But I am saying you might want to rethink what you’re expecting them to accomplish.)
[tweetthis]Good leaders use stories to educate. #leadership #companyculture #hr[/tweetthis]
Leaders Should Be Great Storytellers because Stories Can Humanize Values, Norms, and Information
In case my HR friends (who I love dearly) still aren’t breathing after those last couple sentences above, let me explain.
We all know instinctually that sometimes when we receive information, we’re bored. Other times, we don’t care. Then again, there are other times that we can receive the same or similar information and we’re not bored and we do care. Why is that?
In my experience, it often has to do with how the information is being relayed, right?
Sometimes, it’s stale and impersonal.
For example, imagine a manager tells a group the following:
“Here at ABC Corporation, customer service is the most important thing. Please be sure to always go the extra mile.”
Now, let’s be honest. That’s not terribly potent, is it? Because we hear that nonsense all the time. But what if the manager said this:
“Here at ABC Corporation, customer service is the most important thing; but before you tune me out and think this is the same, tired customer service blah blah blah, let me tell you about Eric. First, everyone turn around and wave at Eric there in the back. (Waves at Eric) Now the reason I wanted to tell you about Eric is because what he did is something that I think really shows you what we’re all about.
Eric had a customer call in, and the customer was livid. LIVID. Long story short, Eric figured out that we had messed something up on the customer’s order. During the call, he heard the customer say to someone else in the background that he knew they were hungry, but they’d have to wait until later when he was off the phone to eat. So what did Eric do? He ordered them pizza while he was fixing the customer’s order, billed it to the company, and at the end of the call let the customer know dinner was on us and on the way. Eric’s not a manager, but he didn’t need approval to do that because that’s what we mean when we say customer service is the most important thing. Do whatever it takes. Period.”
Big difference, right? And the difference is that in the latter example, the information was humanized through the story.
[tweetthis hidden_hashtags=”#leadership #companyculture #hr”]Great leaders understand that stories are part of a humanized culture.[/tweetthis]
Leaders Should Be Great Storytellers because Stories Can Reinforce Positive Behaviors and Discourage Negative Ones
Going back to the story about Eric above, you can see this pretty well. The manager provided a story about positive behaviors and clearly reinforced them for the staff.
Leaders Should Be Great Storytellers because Stories Can Make Organizational Heroes and Legends
Sticking with Eric again, after a while, the more the Eric story is shared, and the longer it’s shared, it begins to take the form of a legend, if that makes sense. Sort of like the things you hear about with stuff from Zappos (you’ve heard about their call center rep who was on the line with a customer for 7 or 8 hours, right?).
Leaders Should Be Great Storytellers because Telling Stories is a Way of Creating Belief
For thousands of years, stories have been used to help create belief. Most religious texts are filled with narratives recounting different events, right? That’s because stories help us understand and believe things.
But why is belief important in an organizational context? Because it’s belief that drives attitudes, and attitudes that drive actions.
For example, I’ve seen before (and I’m sure you have as well) where an employee will use information and stories to create beliefs in the minds of other employees. This can be good or bad, depending on the employee (and his/her motivation, integrity, intent, etc) and stories, of course.
What I’ve seen is employees — even executives, sadly — who will use “stories” (read: gossip, info sharing, and even deceit, etc.) to create negative beliefs in employees, board members, or others about other members of the team.
Then what happens is that within those folks who receive the stories, beliefs are created that then fuel negative attitudes. Those attitudes then manifest themselves in actions like overt negativity, additional gossip, being subversive, and so on.
So in that scenario, you’re actually seeing storytelling used as a tool to divide a team and organization rather than unite it. But it’s the same concept: it’s storytelling being used to create beliefs.
[tweetthis]Beliefs create attitudes, and attitudes drive actions. Great leaders understand this. #leadership #hr[/tweetthis]
Leaders Should Be Great Storytellers because Stories Show People their Potential Role in the Organization: The Role of the Hero
Stories can be used to show people the potential they have to play their part within the organization’s narrative. People perpetually underestimate the impact they can have, both in positive and negative terms.
On one hand, someone who chooses to engage in stuff that’s detrimental to the team can have an ongoing negative impact. It can and often does pull others into the negativity, as we just saw above.
[tweetthis]People who decide to play a positive role can be the hero the team needs. #leadership #companyculture[/tweetthis]
What’s the bottom line? The great thing about stories is that there’s source material all around you. Just look around. And the more you tell stories, the more positive change you’re likely to see. Because you see, stories help produce transformation, and transformation, in turn, produces more stories.