I was presenting on culture and leadership at a recent conference (#100millionimpacts, for B1G1), and whilst facilitating a panel discussion, a common theme that emerged was the importance of the stories in business. In response to many questions after the session, here are a few thoughts on stories in business to extend that discussion further:
Stories are powerful means of communication. Often, people believe that storytelling ends when the kids grow up. However, there are stories being told within your business – and about your business – that can either take it to new heights of success or lead it to ruin.
What stories are being told about your business?
People communicate through stories.
As people communicate, they engage each other through analogy (this is like that), metaphor (the army of sales reps) and stories. Humans are always using these processes to engage their listeners, develop shared meaning and convey information in ways that make it easy to understand.
We don’t do well with facts on their own. Without connection to anything, or context through story, facts are readily forgotten. The power of stories is that they connect information to emotion and to process, making them relevant and memorable.
Humans love to understand and create meaning from information. We are always seeking to explain information through cause and effect constructions (known as the ‘narrative bias’) rather than being comfortable with the randomness of correlated information. Understanding through stories reduces the fear of the unknown, increase attention (through relevance and priming) and increases the connection to other information and sequences stored in episodic memory.
People can remember the order of multiple packs of playing cards randomly presented to them at about one card per second. They don’t do this by remembering the individual cards, but by creating and remembering the story. The very best at this create stories around the sequence of cards – so that they can enhance their meaning and storage capability beyond the usual ‘working memory’ of 7 +/-2 chunks of information.
People naturally use stories to convey information, and the best storytellers are often the best communicators. Throughout our history, oral traditions of passing information through stories have guided behaviour. Simply because we have left the ‘caves’ and entered corporate or cyber life, does not diminish the power of stories, or how people inherently respond to them.
Inside and outside stories:
With stories such a cherished and important means of communication, it should be no surprise that there are stories told inside your business (by staff) and stories told outside your business (by your staff to customers, investors, etc, and by these people to others and to the staff). Both sets of stories are important to what happens to your organisation. In this piece, I will look specifically at inside stories. In part 2, I will address the ‘outside’ stories in lore detail.
The types of stories that are acceptable and valued inside your business are a critical definition of your culture. If the staff are allowed (or even encouraged) to tell ‘stories’ of how they are ‘too busy’, of how they took personal advantage of a situation (say, by what they ‘got away with’ doing against the rules) or how they were rewarded for inappropriate behaviour, then your culture supports, and reinforces, stories that can ruin your business.
Your culture is built on what is valued and accepted. If stories of inappropriate behaviour are seen as ‘accepted’, or if amongst a group within the business people are ‘cheered on’ as they tell such stories, your culture will drop to this lowest common denominator. These stories are readily remembered and become the marker for what is acceptable or valued in your business.
On the other hand, if the stories that are told reflect positive effort, reward for great strategies, perseverance, or doing the right thing, then these demonstrate what is accepted and valued, and describe the culture.
Which would you prefer?
As leaders, we need to be critically aware of the stories that are being told in the business. I once worked with a group, and when someone told a ‘story’ of how they had made a process more efficient, someone immediately piped up and asked ‘how many jobs were cut?’ This question, left unchallenged, described the problems existing in the workforce. Fear, avoidance, and status quo were key cultural pillars.
Challenging it, and telling a more powerful, and valuable story, communicated to the group that such frames of thinking were not appropriate of acceptable for this group. Immediately the ‘standard’ was set and what was going to be valued within the group was established. Calling out the story as ‘not good enough’ can be a challenge for many leaders, but it is a critical step.
Who has the loudest voice?
The leaders, by virtue of their visibility and salience, are in the most powerful storytelling position in any organisation. However, this is often diminished and the person whose stories are most heard and accepted is not the boss, but someone with an issue or grievance. A leader loses their power to tell the stories of the business if they don’t speak up, if they tell stories that are not connected to reality (have you ever heard communications from bosses that are so far from the experience of the workers that they are simply unbelievable?), or where the leader does not ‘walk the talk’ of the message of the story.
A story without authenticity, connection and impact is wasted.
Too often, the stories being told by disengaged and disgruntled workers can resonate far more with other staff (who may be experiencing similar conditions), than the ‘fabrications’ constructed in the corner office. If the leaders are too far from the realities in the business, their stories will be ignored, and they turn over the control of the cultural storytelling to people who can ruin your business. A leader has to be hearing the stories, understanding the experience that makes this story resonate, and provide alternatives that are authentic, connected and impactful for those that hear them.
As a rule of thumb, in good times a leader needs to retell a key message through at least three stories before it is heard. In crisis or times of stress, this increases to about ten times. If the leader is not trusted or inauthentic, then they can tell the story 100 times, and people will not accept or believe it.
What can you do?
• Listen for the stories in your business. Use them as a way to gauge the cultural ‘temperature’. Use this to guide actions to enhance the business.
• Tell lots of stories to highlight positive values and possible solutions.
• Identify ‘heroes’ in your business and tell their stories
• Reframe any negative story you hear. Challenge stories that are damaging to your culture, call them out and don’t accept or ‘walk past’ them (or they become ‘acceptable’).
• Encourage your leaders and managers to be great storytellers.
• Tell stories that are true, authentic and connect to the experiences and realities of the people hearing them.
Stories are being told within your business – what are you doing to make sure they empower your organisation rather than derail it?