Using the Power of Storytelling to Engage Employees
By Jen Lawrence
A woman I know sometimes talks about one of her earliest and most enduring memories. She was about five and had just started to attend school. She remembers turning around in her seat to watch her teacher walk to the back of the classroom, curious about what she was doing. As the teacher turned to walk back to the front of the classroom, she stopped in front of the little girl’s desk and asked her to hold out her hand, which she happily did. She thought that perhaps the teacher had gone to the back of the classroom to get some treats and was about to give her a candy. Instead, the teacher struck her outstretched palm with the edge of a wooden ruler. Even worse than the pain of the strike was the shock of being punished when she had no idea she’d done anything wrong. The teacher later explained that the girl was to stay facing forward in her seat at all times when she was in the classroom, but it did not matter: trust had been lost.
I often tell this story to people in leadership roles. It illustrates a number of points: the power of expectations, how easily trust can be eroded, and how without communicating rules and consequences, you can simply come across as cruel. Often when companies are making decisions, they forget that there are people involved and the story serves as a reminder that without communication, layoffs, pay-cuts, and increased workloads can feel like a strike on the hand when you are hoping for a candy. Leaders often forget the specifics of the behavioral science and management theory that underpin the points, but they don’t forget the little girl with the outstretched hand. She motivates them to bring a different perspective to work.
As humans, we love to hear stories. In her book, Wired for Story, author Lisa Cron writes, “Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally.” Cron demonstrates how, as a result of biology and history, humans are “wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world” and “make sense of the otherwise overwhelming world around us.”
We have learned to process huge amounts of information in order to survive as a species. As we’ve evolved, our brains have found shortcuts that allow us to process this information more quickly. We more easily take in information that relates to us personally, which is why stories about people have more impact than stories about events or things. The story of the little girl resonates because we’ve all been children, and we’ve all had moments of shock and surprise.
Through the years, we’ve learned that our emotions are often more trustworthy than our analytical brains: when a wild animal was running towards our ancestors, it was the instinctual rush of fear that caused them to jump out of the way rather than sorting through a list of facts about predators and prey. Emotions motivate us similarly today. When the emotions are engaged, we care about the outcome. Great stories make us care about what happens next. We want to know if Rocky wins the fight, Luke uses the Force, or the Starks or the Lannisters prevail. Great stories have the power to drive action, which is why astute marketers and politicians master the power of storytelling. As a business leader, if you can tell a story about your company that appeals to your employees on an emotional level, they are more likely to feel engaged.
In addition to earning an income to help them take care of their families, most employees want to contribute positively to an organization that does valuable work. Smart companies will tell a story that links individual employee efforts to a greater result. Telling a hospital employee to empty a bedpan is not inspiring; asking an employee to help make patients more comfortable at a hard time in their lives is. Make the stories you tell to engage employees as people-centered as possible. One of my favorite corporate mottos is that of The Ritz-Carleton hotel chain: “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” It tells a beautiful story in nine simple words.
A good story is relatable, engages the heart as well as the mind, and makes people feel part of something bigger than themselves. Not every memo has to win the Man Booker prize, but the more compelling the story you tell employees about why their contribution matters, the more engaged they will feel.
Jen Lawrence has widely written and spoken on storytelling, corporate culture, women in business, critical thinking, and strategic planning. Holding an MBA in finance, she has worked in investment banking and management consulting, and was the Executive Director of a children’s museum. She was also a pioneering mommy blogger at T.O. Mama and MUBAR: Mothered Up Beyond All Recognition. She is the author of Engage the Fox: A Business Fable about Thinking Critically and Motivating Your Team. She is currently at work on her first novel.