Get used to it – change is here to stay (Part 2): Storytelling, the art of communicating visions

What can organisations learn from JK Rowling and Dr Martin Luther King?

The answer is surprising and simple, although easier said than done.  Both have been able to inspire a generation of followers into action by using their ability to tell a story.  JK Rowling has inspired a generation of children (and adults alike) to rediscover the skill of reading by engaging their imagination.  Dr King inspired a global generation towards social change through his ability to use metaphors to share his vision of a better and fairer future for all.  So, how can storytelling help build and sustain organisations through change transformations?

“It is our choices that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (A. Dumbeldore: JK Rowling)

“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” (ML King Jr)

What is storytelling?

The art of storytelling is not a new concept – it is one of the oldest forms of communication and socialisation.  Many indigenous populations have been using stories for centuries.  They are used to explain the physical, interpersonal, spiritual and social world around us.  These outcomes are not dissimilar in our organisations.  Stories express organisational culture and help employees to align their personal beliefs with the purpose of the organisation.  This alone is a crucial aspect of an organisation’s development.  Stories provide insight on the norms and values at play as well as shining the spotlight on rituals that underpin the culture.

Why tell stories?

The simple act of telling stories can energise the intellectual capital and knowledge creation of the organisation.  This can result in developing your own brand of competitive advantage; one that is difficult to replicate and provides a self-perpetuating sustainable workforce.

Leaders ultimately have the responsibility of ensuring that the working environment sustains voluntary followship.  It provides an avenue to build trust, inspire, develop shared mental models, demonstrate empathy, encourage openness, stir up intellect and provoke emotions amongst their followers.  In this kind of environment followers are more likely to possess high levels of commitment to the vision and the values of the organisation.  Storytelling can provide the platform where ‘people’ meet ‘process’ in the change transition.  The stories belong to people, and the history belongs to the organisation.

Choosing stories

Traditionally, storytelling is synonymous with children and bedtime.  It seems hardly reputable for businesses to be engaging in an activity that could be considered childish, immature and irrelevant, particularly to the bottom dollar.  A closer look however shows that these very stories have meaning, inspire a child’s imagination, evoke feelings of empathy and enhance the relationship between themselves and the storyteller.  Look deeper still and you may find wisdom and culture forming behaviours hiding in the pages.  The goal is to choose stories that elicit these conscious and subconscious learnings.

While success stories are terrific in their innate nature, telling only success stories can leave followers with negative personal feelings of underachievement and failure and also run the risk of the story teller losing influence.  To counteract this, stories of failure need air time as followers are more likely to engage in their own analysis of what went wrong drawn from their personal experiences.  The outcome is an internalised response which engages in fresh dialogue on the issues that matter most to them.

Are you ready?

Whether you are new or old hand in storytelling, here are four questions to consider:

  • Do we have the right climate in our organisation?

Think about your intentions behind the stories.  Is it to foster open collaboration and personal empowerment, or, is it to control, redirect or bully people into the change itself?  It is probably no surprise that trust, learning, problem solving, medium to high engagement, creativity and understanding are pre-conditions for storytelling to have maximum impact.  The good news is that the act of storytelling helps to develop these in our culture.  At the end of the day, I believe that any organisation is ready; it’s the sophistication of the stories themselves that will need some forethought.

  • Do we have the right people telling our stories?

In larger organisations, frontline and middle managers have the greatest impact in getting messages to frontline employees. In smaller organisations, it would typically be a senior leader.  Remember to consider employees who do not feature on the organisational chart.  Frontline employees engage in storytelling all the time; they’re just not conscious of it as a skill that can either bond or divide the masses.  Additionally, consideration needs to be given to the personal qualities required; respect, integrity and emotional intelligence are at the fore.

  • How do we contextualise, add meaning and value to the stories?

The simpler the story, the easier to tell, listen, digest, question and then internalise the key messages.  Identifying key messages early and making them explicit in the story provides employees with conclusions that they can accept, and/or question and/or reject.  If stories do not make sense, internalisation does not take place and therefore actions cannot be taken: this defeats the purpose of storytelling, so be mindful.

  • Are we going to ‘manage’ storytelling?

Whilst ‘singing from the same book’ is desirable, over-controlling the process of storytelling can violate its intrinsic nature.  This runs the risk of reduced spontaneity and producing carbon copy story tellers; a sure fire way of increasing the tax on employee trust.  To avoid stories getting lost in the translation, our indigenous cultures have the idea that several people are responsible for ‘part of the story’ which ensures that key messages do not become filtered with individual flavours.  It’s not an exact science, so tight controls and measures akin to management theories do not bode well and can negate any storytelling efforts.

So is it for you?

Take stock of the conversations you have or hear in your organisation.  You’re probably already on a path to making change stories for your employees, your customers and the communities that we serve.  Remember that storytelling in all its forms brings people together, and people underpin successful change initiatives, regardless of where they sit in the organisation chart.

Andrea Collett
Senior HR Consultant
Phone: 1300 284 364