Telling authentic and personal stories about your organisation is one of the most powerful tools you as a leader can use to drive and sustain employee engagement. This is because stories about your organisation help meet the emotional needs people have at work – to be secure, to belong, to be part of something meaningful, worthwhile and successful – in a way that facts, figures and logic never can.
As a leader, how often have you spoken to your team about sales, growth or profitability and wondered why everyone seemed so uninspired? Of course, sales and profit matter, but they’re rarely the reason most people get out of bed in the morning enthusiastic to come into work and do a great job. I remember one senior manager saying to us recently “When I think about the teams I watch or the music and bands I listen to, I support them because of how they make me feel; here at work all we get from our CEO is facts and logic and data and it just leaves me cold.”
The solution: telling stories that connect with people on a personal level with authenticity.
In the seminal report Engaging for Success1, David Macleod defined employee engagement as having three components: 1) employees having a sense of organisational citizenship; 2) employees being willing to give discretionary effort, and 3) employees having the intention to build their future career with the organisation. So how, as a leader, can sharing authentic and personal stories about your organisation contribute to improving these dimensions of engagement?
The first reason is that hearing stories, especially those of which you are a part, meet fundamental needs rooted deeply in our evolutionary origins as human beings. In his compelling book Sapiens2, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the very purpose of language is to enable human beings to co-operate together in pursuit of goals and enterprises greater than themselves by sharing (and believing) myths and stories about their place in the world. The stories that you tell as a leader about the origins, values and successes of your organisation validates in your people’s minds that they are part of something meaningful and worthwhile. These stories confirm to people that their contribution matters and provides staff with a sense of belonging to an enterprise of which they can be proud and where they envisage their future career unfolding.
David Macleod’s findings agree with this – his research found that one of the primary drivers of employee engagement is exposure to leaders who can articulate a clear narrative (or story) about their organisation. These leaders are always talking about where their organisation has come from, where it is now, and most importantly where it is going in the future.
Furthermore, Harari talks about human’s unique capacity to use language to paint a picture of a future state, visualising and believing in this yet non-existent reality with such conviction that it can incite collective effort. He argues that it is primarily through stories that we understand and make sense of the world.
The latest insights from neuroscience concur with this: they tell us that human beings have a deep need for certainty and clarity about the future. In today’s world, such certainty is hard to provide, but that should not stop you as a leader talking about the vision you have for your organisation and the journey you will take together to get there.
The obvious question that these insights provoke is: what sort of stories can you search out and relate as a leader in order to have this positive impact?
Prioritise authenticity and personal connection
Before we answer the question above, we need to understand how to use authenticity and personal connection in storytelling to influence employee engagement. Firstly, be prepared to tell authentic, personal stories about your organisation and your own experiences of it – perhaps even be a little vulnerable in doing so. In this sense, being vulnerable means talking about decisions or situations which have not gone well for you, and what was learned from these. We all make mistakes; admitting these shows how you are human.
You still need to present business and financial results to your team with maximum enthusiasm and commitment, but if this is all you ever do it’s hard to reveal anything engaging about yourself that enables people to feel connected with you as a fellow human being. Be sure that in both your formal and informal interactions and presentations to team members you not only have the latest business data at your fingertips but also the latest stories that bring this data to life – about your own personal experiences, and about the challenges and successes of colleagues. These stories enable people to feel they know you as a person and consequently build trust into their relationship with you. As you recognise the importance of telling stories, it will change how you approach your interactions.
Secondly, stories that people can personally connect to are the most powerful. And the best way to find these stories is through authentic conversations with your team members and colleagues! In our book 5 Conversations to Drive Trust, Engagement and Performance at Work we talk about the power of authentic conversations to build trust and deepen the personal relationships from which a sense of engagement can flow. The third of the five conversations – ‘Showing genuine appreciation’ – is one of the most productive and fruitful routes to finding authentic, relatable success stories you can share with colleagues. Based on the principles of Appreciative Inquiry, this conversation helps you understand what’s going well for them and where they are being successful, including a deep exploration of how they are achieving this success.
Seek out story types that work
This finally brings us to the question of what type of stories to seek out and tell. These fall into three categories. Firstly, there are stories from the past which illustrate the heritage and values of your organisation: from surviving through adversity to growing and succeeding, especially if this is against the odds. Secondly, there are stories from the present, whether personal to you or gathered from your conversations with team members and colleagues. The best stories celebrate the hard work, ingenuity and successes of team members and colleagues in meeting organisational challenges, developing quality products or services and championing the needs of customers. Finally, there are stories about the future where you paint a picture of positive experiences and results that lie ahead when challenges are overcome and strategies are implemented effectively.
Be a storytelling champion
As an HR leader, you play an important role championing storytelling as a key feature of day-to-day organisational communication. Remind your business leaders when they are undertaking team briefings or ‘Town Halls’ that it’s not enough to present the facts and figures – people need to hear stories too about their colleague’s challenges and successes in order to engage with the information they are hearing and the strategies they are expected to implement.
Side note: Unfortunately, there are times where you may be faced with negative stories about your business. How you handle this internally depends on whether the stories are true or not! If they are true, own up, apologise and explain the actions you’ve taken to prevent things ever going wrong again. If they are untrue, refute politely and calmly, and explain why they’re untrue with evidence to confirm your statements.
1 McLeod D and Clarke N (July 2009) Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement, Office of Public Sector Information, United Kingdom
2 Harari, Y N (2015) Sapiens: A brief history of humankind, Vintage, United Kingdom
Date: 14 November 2017