Since humans could communicate we have understood our reality through storytelling.
And though the medium has changed beyond even what George Orwell could have predicted - from drawing cave paintings to watching Tik Tok on our phones - the power of story to make sense of the world around us has remained steadfast.
Now, as we head out of arguably one of the most important stories in the historybook of humankind, we are confronted with the mind boggling question of what is going to be in the chapters ahead.
When we look at this in the context of work, it can be a useful tool to see our leaders as authors of the book in which employees are playing a part.
The changes that everyone has had to experience presents a new set of challenges for leadership - not least how to bring people back into the workplace in a ‘hybrid’ way of working, with some happily still at home and others desperate to return to their regular place of work.
But undoubtedly we are all part of this story, each of us living out a very alien and diverse set of circumstances. Leaders will need something powerful to bind us together – keep us connected – and, wherever we choose to be, part of a strong, unifying organisational culture after a year of shock, uncertainty and massive disruption.
Storytelling is a powerful tool to maintain this cultural bond. Whatever our experiences over the last year, businesses can benefit from a compelling narrative that weaves together and reminds us of the pride we feel about our organisation, its enduring social purpose, the honesty of the challenges we’ve faced, and the pain points we must acknowledge.
And, positively, the opportunity that we can now all embrace. It can remind people of the values and behaviours we seek as the foundations of our culture – regardless of where and how we are working – and build belief in how we will thrive in the new world.
One of the most effective ways of building this narrative is to tap into the experiences and ‘small’ stories that sit within the organisation – a true reflection of who we are and what we stand for.
Connecting and reinforcing
As social beings, we humans strive to make sense of the world through stories. They become the currency of our ‘tribe’, connecting and helping us to reinforce and maintain a sense of safety within our comfort zone.
These stories – stories of achievement and overcoming individuals’ struggles and endeavours – can collectively reinforce the fact that ‘we’re in this together,’ part of something bigger than ourselves, a story within which we are all playing our part.
And they can become the source of immense pride and purpose, fostering a natural sense of engagement, belonging and loyalty.
They also provide valuable insights into the organisational culture and can be celebrated to exemplify the kind of values and behaviours a business wants to uphold. The pandemic has uncovered millions of amazing stories about the efforts people have made to help each other during one of the biggest crisis in living history, whether fundraising, supporting others in times of need and going out of our way to help colleagues and customers.
Or companies making rapid changes to our ways of working to adapt to the virtual world, with faster decision-making, better collaboration and swift innovation. These stories make up the fabric of our organisations, creating purpose and meaning, and a mirror that reflects who we are and our collective behaviour as a group.
Making us feel proud
Whether it was Pret A Manager announcing its actions to support NHS members, LinkedIn providing free learning materials, Louis Vuitton turning its hand to manufacturing hand sanitiser or Google moving quickly to set up a fund for temporary staff to take paid sick leave, many companies played their part in making people’s lives easier.
By harvesting and amplifying stories through focus groups and other two-way channels of communication can serve as a useful reminder as to why we do what we do, why we are proud to work for our organisation, and why we should continue to give our loyalty and effort. They validate the ‘master’ narrative of where the organisation is going and why – inspiring proof points and learnings that make that anchoring narrative real, tangible and human and galvanises us to take action.
Leaders can share their own stories
Leaders can also reinforce this sense of unity and involvement by telling their own personal stories of how they have dealt with the pressures and challenges of the last year. These authentic leadership stories can spark empathy, which in turn builds trust. They can be tremendously influential, and even more so if linked back to the company’s narrative and values.
Nobody can dispute the power of story when we look back over this last year. A great example of a ‘master’ narrative was that of Captain Sir Tom Moore, whose quest to support a struggling NHS by walking 100 laps of his garden resulted in millions being raised.
This, in turn, has generated hundreds of smaller perspectives, even after his passing, of people of every age who have been inspired to continue to raise funds in his memory. The same applies to business. Take Santander, for example, a high street bank that wanted to place caring for customers at the heart of its organisational mission.
As the ongoing pandemic posed problems for some of its most vulnerable customers, it quickly chose to launch an empathy-driven, highly-personal ‘Reaching Out’ service, which would see dedicated staff commit to contacting, connecting with, and caring for any customers found to be struggling – in any way.
Though it required extra resource and a number of keen staff willing to add to their weekly workloads, all employees agreed that this was what fostering a culture based on care looked like to them.
For organisations now planning their return to the workplace, it’s time to start shaping the overarching narrative – looking to a more positive future and mining some of the great stories of achievement to demonstrate, educate and inspire the workforce on what we’re capable of when we’re at our best, even during a crisis.
Alison's top tips to creating stories that matter:
- Co-create your strategic or change narrative with the Executive team. They need to own it and role model it, so it shouldn’t be something crafted by the Comms department simply for Executive sign-off
- Find a good facilitator to run these sessions. Everyone will have a different perspective and point of view, so careful facilitation is important to allow everyone to have a voice
- Don’t cram too much into the narrative. Keep it simple, clear and high-level so that different leaders can interpret it for their part of the business
- Give the leaders a toolkit to personalise the narrative and bring it to life for their teams. Not all leaders are confident communicators, so may need some support and possibly some additional training
- Role model the behaviours asked for in the narrative, and keep it alive by linking initiatives, plans and activities back to it at every opportunity. Use it to speed up decision-making and to stimulate the sharing of small stories of success and achievement across the business
Alison Esse is Co-founder and Director of The Storytellers.