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Storytelling: An Underutilized Leadership Tool for Employee Engagement


Employees who feel connected to their work are more productive, innovative, and loyal to their organization. However, creating a strong sense of purpose and belonging can be challenging, especially in large companies with diverse workforces. One management technique that can help bridge this gap is strategic storytelling. When done effectively, storytelling gives employees context around organizational goals and values while also making abstract concepts more tangible and memorable.


Today we will explore how leaders can leverage the power of narrative to boost employee engagement through connection, clarity, and culture-building.


The Science Behind Stories


Before delving into specific storytelling strategies, it is important to understand why narratives are so captivating on a human level. Research from neuroscience sheds light on this phenomenon. When we hear a story, our brain releases dopamine which activates the same neural pathways as experiential learning (Zak, 2014). In other words, we actually experience elements of a story ourselves on a neurological level. Stories also stimulate areas of the brain related to empathy, allowing us to understand different perspectives (Drachen et al., 2014). Additionally, research in cognitive psychology shows narratives are easier to comprehend and remember than lists of facts alone (Rubin, 1995). Stories create mental frameworks we can reference, making abstract ideas more tangible.


These biological insights demonstrate why stories are a powerful tool for leaders seeking to engage employees. When done authentically, narratives connect people on an emotional level by stimulating empathy and experiential learning pathways in the brain. Stories also make complex topics easier to grasp and recall compared to dry facts or presentations. This cognitive foundation highlights opportunities for strategic storytelling applications in organizations.


Using Stories to Provide Clarity and Vision


One major way leaders can apply storytelling is to bring clarity and vision to an organization's purpose and strategic direction. At many large companies, goals and objectives can become muddled as they pass through layers of management. Stories help crystallize high-level strategies into relatable, memorable narratives.


3M's Founding Story


A famous example is how 3M, the innovation company known for Post-it notes and Scotch tape, invokes its founding story to inspire breakthrough thinking. The tale recounts how co-founders Henry S. Bristol and William L. McKnight agreed to focus their medical supply startup on new product development instead of importing goods. This risky strategy ultimately led to immense success with tapes and adhesives (Torre, 2011).


Amazon's Customer-Centric Vision


Likewise, Amazon infuses its culture with founder Jeff Bezos' conviction that the customer is king. Stories relaying how the company went to extreme lengths to satisfy early buyers, no matter the cost, reinforce the vision of customer obsession that drives ambitious growth (Stone, 2013).


Stories bring abstract, lofty aims like "innovation" and "customer-centricity" down to human-level vivid examples that resonate. When embedded strategically, they help translate high-level strategies into daily priorities that motivate employees.


Using Stories to Strengthen Organizational Culture


Beyond clarifying vision, stories also powerfully shape and reinforce desired cultures. Specific cultural narratives can spread core values while encouraging certain behaviors over others.


SoulCycle's Founding Myth


Take boutique fitness brand SoulCycle, famous for its uplifting, music-driven indoor cycling classes. The company's origin story often shared with employees and the public tells of founder Elizabeth Cutler's chance encounter with a transformative cycling experience in New York that inspired her to launch the brand (Weiss, 2018).


This anecdote reinforces SoulCycle's culture of joy, community, motivation and paying spiritual experiences forward - values central to its popular classes. The retelling spreads and cements the feel-good aspects of the culture Cutler aimed to create from the start.


Southwest Airlines' Maverick Spirit


Similarly, Southwest Airlines deliberately cultivated an unconventional, risk-taking culture through legendary tales. Stories arose of daring promotional stunts, customer service gambles and mock battles with bigger rivals that personified the company's maverick, playful spirit (Graham & Barrett, 2006). These reinforced the informal, rule-breaking ethos that powered Southwest's success against industry incumbents for decades.


Organizational myths and founding stories can galvanize cultural values when shared strategically. They help promulgate accepted behaviors, norms and attitudes by making culture tangible through vivid examples. Purposeful storytelling is thus a tool for sustaining desired cultures over time.


Guiding Employees Through Change With Story


In addition to providing clarity and shaping culture, stories are instrumental for guiding employees through organizational changes or difficult periods. Transitions inherently create uncertainty that can stir anxiety, lowering engagement and productivity. Strategic narratives alleviate these challenges by framing change in a compelling, reassuring manner.


GE's Tale of Turnaround: After becoming CEO in 1981, legendary leader Jack Welch had to convince GE's staid workforce that big changes were needed to restore competitiveness. Internally, he shared the "GE Turnaround Story" which recast past failures as lessons that paved the way for new strategies and mindsets (Kiechel, 2010). Welch's storytelling gave change necessary context and momentum to eventually transform GE into an innovative powerhouse.


Southwest Airlines Adapts to Hard Times: During the airline industry downturn after 9/11, Southwest faced shrinking revenues but refused mandatory employee pay cuts. Instead, leadership rallied staff with tales emphasizing the cooperative, optimistic culture that had always seen them through hard times before (Groysberg, 2010). Storytelling instilled confidence that teamwork could overcome new challenges too.


Sharing strategic narratives around change enables leaders to frame instability and uncertainty in understandable, positive terms. It reassures staff transitions are purposeful and surmountable when faced as united teams - boosting morale crucial for resilient organizations.


Guiding Employee Storytelling Practices


Given stories' evident potential to engage and mobilize workers, leaders would be wise to actively cultivate strategic storytelling practices within their organizations. Some effective approaches include:


  • Leader Storytelling Training - Instruct managers on crafting and sharing mission-driven, values-based stories that spark intrinsic motivation.

  • Storytelling Campaigns - Launch periodic, company-wide initiatives encouraging employees to share real experiences bringing meaning to mission or culture.

  • Internal Media - Feature curated employee stories through newsletters, intranets and videos to instill pride and spread exemplary behaviors.

  • Onboarding Storytelling - Incorporate personal mission-focused story sharing into new hire orientations for stronger assimilation to purpose.

  • Recognition Through Stories - Publicly honor top performers by sharing stories detailing specific acts epitomizing desired values.


Strategic storytelling must become an organizational norm through guidance and role modeling from leaders. When tapped authentically, employee narratives can spread purpose and celebrate successes just as powerfully as formal communications.


Conclusion


In today's constantly shifting work environments, employee engagement depends more than ever on feeling connected to organizational mission and culture. Strategic storytelling provides a practical solution by cultivating these intrinsic links. Rooted in human neuroscience and psychology, stories activate experiential learning and foster empathy. They also make purpose, values and change initiatives tangible and memorable versus detached objectives. As demonstrated across industries, purposeful stories from leaders and employees alike spark clarity, reinforce cultures and reassure staff through transitions. Any organization seeking to maximize workforce motivation would benefit from cultivating narrative as a core management practice. When guided effectively, storytelling represents a highly-scalable, low-cost tool for real human connection in today's business world.


References


  • Drachen, A., Schubert, M., & Lakomkin, E. (2014). Storytelling and neuroscience: How to build an emotionally engaging brand story. Journal of Brand Strategy, 3(2), 192-200.

  • Graham, J., & Barrett, B. (2006). Storytelling at Southwest Airlines: An analysis of the airline’s internal communication strategy. Journal of Communication Management, 10(4), 311–327. https://doi.org/10.1108/13632540610714739

  • Groysberg, B. (2010). How Southwest Airlines manages people, January-February. Harvard Business Review, 88(1-2), 88-95.

  • Kiechel, W. (2010). The leaders who transformed GE--Jack Welch. Harvard Business Review, 88(11), 62-66.

  • Rubin, D. C. (1995). Memory in oral traditions: The cognitive psychology of epic, ballads, and counting-out rhymes. Oxford University Press.

  • Stone, B. (2013). The everything store: Jeff Bezos and the age of Amazon. Little Brown.

  • Torre, J. (2011). 3M's incredible culture of innovation. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/1671089/3ms-incredible-culture-innovation

  • Weiss, L. (2018). SoulCycle and the business of making work feel like play. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/40557604/how-soulcycle-built-a-culture-where-work-feels-like-play

  • Zak, P. J. (2014). Why inspiring stories make us react: The neuroscience of narrative. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, 2015. Danforth Foundation.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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