The irresistible power of storytelling as a strategic business tool | Daily News
Leading your flock into greener pastures – Part 29

The irresistible power of storytelling as a strategic business tool

Storytelling has become a top-of-mind issue in recent times, as technology has democratized the power to share our stories with the world. The fact that it continues to be a pressing issue in today’s age of collaborative commerce is no surprise. What is, however, is the attention it is finally getting as a business competency that drives emotional engagement and resulting enhanced business performance.

People love to relate anecdotes and tell stories in all walks of life, and the workplace is no exception. In fact, story-telling is a more natural and important part of people’s daily lives than you may appreciate: (1) Parents tell their children nursery rhymes and bedtime stories, some of which contain important meanings or messages about life; (2) Friends and family members recount their daily experiences as stories in conversations; (3) Friends and work colleagues tell each other jokes, many of which have a storyline; (4) One generation hands down stories to the next in order to pass on wisdom and sustain a culture.

You can use the power of story-telling to help maintain staff support for your workplace changes.


Take a few minutes to carry out the following exercise and reflect on your own experiences of the impact that story-telling can have on an organisation’s culture:

Divide the page of a notebook into 3 columns: In the first column, write a brief synopsis of a story or anecdote that you heard a work colleague tell about an event or situation in an organisation in which you both worked. In the second column, write a few words that describe the main meaning or message that the person was attempting to convey through telling the story. In the third column, capture the effect that you think telling the story had on reinforcing or changing your own or your work colleagues’ attitudes, values or behaviour towards who or what the story was about. It may be the organisation, a group or department in the organisation, senior management and so on.

Repeat steps 3 to 5 for other experiences of story-telling that were significant for you. We have provided one example in the first row to help you get started.

Examine the content of the third column to see what insights you gain about the power or impact of story-telling as a means of reinforcing and/or changing culture within work groups.

Power of storytelling

You may be surprised by the power that some stories have had in reinforcing or changing culture in organisations where you’ve worked, especially stories that people who have many years of experience of being employed in the relevant organisation tell regularly. Such stories are often about significant events or people and have a particularly strong meaning for those employees and, in my experience, are often about one of the following aspects (although you can probably add to the list after completing the above exercise:

(1) How good life used to be in the organisation - as perceived by the story-teller(s). Exceptionally good or bad leaders — and how they treated employees: (2) An event that resulted in a major improvement or breakdown in relationships between management and employees: (3) An achievement or occasion with which the story-teller is proud to be associated, such as winning a major contract or providing exceptional service to a customer.

Use story-telling to do the following:

(1) Paint a picture of how things are going to be when your proposed workplace change is working brilliantly: describe how people will feel about their work as well as what they’ll be doing and achieving: (2) Reinforce the progress being made in making and sustaining a change in the workplace.

Talk about:

(1) Examples of problems experienced and how people overcame them: (2) Improvements in performance that people are achieving due to the change: (3) Feedback from other departments or customers to whom your team is providing a service, especially anecdotes that customers have provided regarding any noticeable improvements in the attitude or behaviour of members of your team: (3) Share and reinforce good and exceptional practice or performance by a member of your team in adopting the new process or system: (4) Encourage members of your team to tell their own stories about difficulties and successes experienced in adopting the change in the workplace.

Spotting people straying from the path

You may find that people stray from the path - the new way of working - because they: (1) Aren’t clear about where the path is leading, (2) Are unsure about exactly what they’re expected to do, (3) Don’t have the skills or tools to keep up with the pace, (4) Don’t want to change, and/or don’t want the new process or system to work.

In earlier instalments we discussed the importance of, and how to become skilled in, engaging people to gain their commitment to do a task. You can use these same approaches and skills to ensure that people embrace and sustain a change in the workplace. Engaging people effectively in making a change enables you to address the first three factors mentioned in the preceding list, but the last issue - spotting people who don’t want to change - may be harder to detect, especially if people are unwilling to tell you what they really think about making the change work.

Undermining change

A person who actively undermines a workplace change, but presents the image of complying with or even embracing the change, may be particularly difficult (for you) to manage.

People can actively undermine a change by employing one or more of the following types of behaviour: (1) Arguing to their colleagues that the change is unnecessary, (2) Telling their colleagues that the change won’t work and is ‘doomed to fail’, (3) Proposing that the change is the ‘thin end of the wedge’ and that work and conditions are going to become more difficult for them all, (4) Emphasising problems experienced with the change to their colleagues.

Some of your staff may have extreme difficulty challenging a colleague who’s actively undermining the change, especially if that person is a strong character.

Almost all people behave reasonably when treated fairly, but you need to be on the lookout for any evidence that a person may not be supporting, or is even undermining, your change. Look for any inconsistencies in what the person says (especially during one-to-one conversations and group meetings) and then actually does with regard to the change.

Use your skills in sensing commitment, particularly the highly developed skills of seeing ‘what others may miss and listening intensely, to notice when someone doesn’t want to change.

Spotting people who are undermining your changes when not directly in your presence is the first step in tackling their behaviour. We have already showed you in an earlier instalment the approaches that help you handle this problem, describes the golden rule of (acting) ‘Now’ and also details the dangers of delaying talking to a work colleague whose work or behaviour is unacceptable.

Paying attention to the right things

Leading and managing people is difficult because so many things are competing for your attention, including: (1) Ensuring that you achieve the objectives and results expected of you and your team: (2) Organising people and work: (3) Sticking to deadlines: (4) Seeing to the needs and expectations of every member of your team: (5) Solving problems and resolving disagreements or any relationship issues between members of your team.

And many more.

You also have to make sure that you pay enough attention to your introduced changes so that they’re successful and maintained. The earlier section ‘Walking the Talk: Leading by Example’ describes how you personally have an impact on the enthusiasm and commitment of people to sustain a workplace change, whereas this section shows what you need to pay attention to in order to complement your personal impact.

Remember: what gets measured gets done

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are vital in helping you to measure how effectively you’re achieving your objectives. (We spoke about KPIs earlier). Well, you can also use these key performance measures to evaluate how well your workplace changes are working.

For example, if you’re implementing a change in a production process to improve the quality of products coming off a production line, you may be interested in the following KPIs: (1) Percentage of products produced within the product specification: (2) Number of products that had to be reworked due to faulty workmanship in each team or step in the production process: (3) Percentage, or value, of products scrapped: (4) Number of faults, by type or cause (so that you can work on eradicating the source of the faults).

KPIs have three main uses: (1) To inform an individual or group about the target or standard or performance that has to be achieved: (2) To monitor progress in achieving the target or standard : (3) To influence how people think and act regarding the specific target or standard of performance.

When implementing and sustaining a change in the workplace, you can use KPIs to reinforce important standards, attitudes and behaviour as follows: (1) Display information about how well your team is achieving KPIs on visual display boards, using graphs to show trends in performance: (2)Discuss KPIs with your team, highlighting achievements and focusing on aspects of performance that are below the required target or standard: (3)Talk about good and bad examples of approaches/attitudes towards preventing or solving problems and making the change a continued success.

(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired company director with over 35 years’ experience in senior business management. Presently he is a business consultant, freelance newspaper columnist and a writer. He could be contacted on [email protected])

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