Organizational Storytelling: The Swiss Army Knife in Your Leadership Toolkit

By Margaret Morford

Like a Swiss Army knife, organizational storytelling has numerous, powerful uses.  CEOs attend multiple-day seminars to learn how to do this well because storytelling is an effective way to communicate a strategic vision, to discuss (and change) culture or to illustrate the ethics that exist (or need to exist) within your organization.

In human resources, we have all seen individuals become the top candidate for a job because of a particularly impactful incident they told about themselves during an interview.  Similarly, much of the branding that is done today is based on organizational stories, such as Hewlett Packard starting in a garage.  We like to see movies that are based on true stories because human beings have an innate longing to be a part of something bigger than themselves and to know that is possible.

Organizational stories can be used to share other employees’ experiences and lessons learned to keep repeated mistakes from happening.  They help people “stick” when the work gets hard because they appeal to our emotions, not our brains.  Human being will continue to push long after their brains have told them to stop if you engage their emotions.

Stories also incite us to action (think new strategic initiative in your organization) when a picture of what could be is placed in our consciousness.  The numerous stories William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer placed in their newspapers are credited with getting American to enter the Spanish American War, which really had to do with Cuba getting its independence from Spain (something the U.S. would not normally have gotten involved in).  Both men recognized these stories would be a way to boost newspaper sales, but they caused so much more to happen in the world.

In HR, we talk a great deal about engagement, which simply means getting people to do more than is normally expected of them.  True stories about people your employees work with and around can make them see “going the extra mile” as the new standard.  Storytelling is a way to overcome objections that are deeply rooted in our psyche.  Our brain filters out and discards information that challenges our personal conclusions and belief systems.  (This is why your parents instructed you not to talk about politics or religion with other people since it rarely changes their minds and often leads to arguments.)  Storytelling floats past that barrier because the brain perceives it as experience rather than opinion.  The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin is credited as a major force in bringing an end to slavery in the United States.  The book was not a political treatise, but rather a simple story about a brutal plantation owner, Simon Legree, who doesn’t even appear until two-thirds of the way through the novel!

Storytelling, when done well, can be one of the most powerful and useful workplace tools available because of its multiple applications and its ability to affect and change our thinking, both consciously and unconsciously.

Margaret Morford is speaking at the HR Conference + Tradeshow 2018 in Vancouver. Her session, The Hidden Language of Organizations: Workplace Power, Politics and Influence is on Wednesday, May 2, 2018. For more information on this and other sessions, please visit cphrbc.ca/conference.

Margaret Morford is CEO of The HR Edge, Inc, an international management consulting and training firm.  She is the author of the business books Management Courage – Having the Heart of a Lion and The Hidden Language of Business – Workplace Power, Politics & Influence.

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