Inspiring Tips

Tell Me a Story

How a company-inspired yarn can motivate your employees

Everybody loves a good story and employees are no exception. The age-old tradition of storytelling is experiencing a revival and increasing number of companies are using it to increase morale, get across mission statements, recruit new staff members and praise existing ones. The roles storytelling play can be as varied as the tales told throughout organizations that are using them.

Many companies are finding that stories can be the glue that holds an organization together. In the past few years, Salt Lake City-based Nightime Pediatrics Clinics has grown from one clinic to a five-facility pediatric practice. Along the way it has experienced growing pains: Every time a clinic was added, the core values of the company were eroded. Employees didn't recognize that their actions had any impact on patients.

Nightime's Chief Executive Officer, Teresa Lever-Pollary, thought the core values of the company had their origins in events that occurred within the original organization and that these "stories" might help perpetuate the company's culture. So she hired Rick Stone, president of the Orlando-based StoryWork Institute, a national company that has developed training programs dealing with storytelling for teambuilding and leadership. He helped Lever-Pollary identify stories that reflected the core values of the company.

The result of their efforts was Nightime Stories, a book of yarns told by the staff and patients of Nightime. The book was given out to all employees on the company's 15th anniversary in the hopes that it would pull the organization back together and give employees a better sense of their contributions.

Did it work? "One employee went to Lever-Pollary in tears and said, 'I have not recognized over the course of the years what I've done here.' It really made an impact," says Sue Kiisel, a training and development manager at Nightime. "Employees recognized their work made a difference."

In most organizations the history of the company, along with its mission and value statements, aren't in a book of stories but a document that's handed to employees on the first day of the job. Most employees don't make it through these dense manuals, let alone remember what's in them. Like Nightime's book, stories in the form of a company manual can get across company policies and values in a way that employees will not only understand, but remember.

In lieu of a mission statement, David Armstrong, chief operating officer of Armstrong International Inc., and author of Managing by Storying Around, writes stories and disseminates them among employees. "There was a problem getting people to read and remember what they read. What good is a policy if employees can't use it when they need it? I decided to write stories because they're memorable and people listen." His idea paid off. "People told me that they knew more about how this company ran in one month after reading those stories than they knew about their former company where they worked for 10 to 12 years."

Since then, he's since written three books on managing through stories and receives calls from Fortune 500 companies all over the world for advice on how to implement storytelling in their organizations. "They've been assigned by top level executives to improve their company culture. They're downsizing, they're having problems and they don't know what to do. They need to improve communications and storytelling is a fun, friendly form of communication," says Armstrong.

And that's not all it does. According to Stone, stories provide behavioral models on how employees should act in certain situations. Noel Tichy's book, The Leadership Engine, advocates that the best tool in the leaders arsenal is storytelling. He recalls a story about the computer company Hewlett-Packard. Dave Packard walks into a room, sees a lock on a cabinet and calls for a saw. He saws off the lock and says, "we will not have a workplace where we have to lock things up."

"When employees hear this story they have a decision to make," says Stone. "They must ask themselves, 'What is the message Packard is sending?'"

Managers are also using stories for recruiting purposes. Armstrong says it gives powerful insight when hiring. "I have potential employees read some of my stories," he says. "If they like the story and its morals, then we'll keep talking. If they say it's ridiculous, we stop. I want the person to fit the values of my company. This is an effective way to find out if they do."

Stories carry lessons and send messages internally and externally about the morals of a company. Consider this example from a recent article in Fortune magazine. At IBM a security guard forces CEO Tom Watson to go back for his identification. Watson praises him for sticking to company policy. At Revlon, Charles Revlon is stopped by a receptionist from walking away with a sign in sheet. He fires her. The moral of the story for one company becomes rules are obeyed, the other obeys rulers.

At its simplest, storytelling is the oldest form of communication. It has the ability to touch human emotion and move people. While it may seem an esoteric concept for business management, it works for those untraditional enough to try it. As Armstrong says in his book, "All cultures, all ages, all genders, all races, all disabilities, all levels of experience, all levels of education and all businesses yesterday, today and tomorrow believe and enjoy storytelling."

How can you argue with that?


Tips for Doing Your Own Storytelling

● Identify heroic action in your company where people made a difference. Have leaders share these stories whenever they can at staff meetings, in planning situations, newsletters, etc.

● Think about your business from a story perspective. Do you have good stories that illustrate your core values, mission and policies?

● Find out who the storytellers in your organization are. There's always someone around the water cooler telling tales. Get them to help you.

● Expect resistance. Some employees may think it's a strange concept, but once they've read a few stories they'll be hooked.

● Appoint story ambassadors to post stories on bulletin boards throughout the company so everyone can read them.

● Keep stories short and to the point.

● Use employees' names. They enjoy recognition and are motivated by it.

adapted from  

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