The Impact of a Good Story is Greater than the Effort to Tell It

The human brain is wired for stories. It focuses, concentrates, imagines, and it learns through narratives. Our power of observation is magnified by the affect of relating oneself with the experience of others. You can’t have their experience, but you can imagine a version of it.

Throughout history, story telling has been of utmost importance. The masterful art of it has been obscured of late by the science of business i.e. measurement, evidence, and math. But as Dan Pink has stated in A Whole New Mind, a good story teller will be at a premium in the near future. Why, because the impact is still greater than the effort. A good story resonates.

For instance, Peter Bregman in his How We Work blog for the Harvard Business Review tells a tale of an interaction he had with a senior leader of a professional services firm. This firm wanted to change the culture of its organization. Most of the time when people say they want to change the culture of their company, its lip service. The company is the way it is for a reason. But as Bregman describes, it can be done:

She was a senior leader in a professional services firm, where peoplereally are their most important asset. Only it turns out the peopleweren’t so happy. Theirs was a very successful firm with high revenues,great clients, and hard working employees. But employee satisfactionwas abysmally low and turnover rates were staggeringly high. Employeeswere performing, they just weren’t staying.

This firm had developed a reputation for being a terrible place towork. When I met with the head of the firm, he illustrated the problemwith a personal example. Just recently, he told me, a client meetinghad been scheduled on the day one of his employees was getting married.”I told her she needed to be there. That the meeting was early enoughand she could still get to her wedding on time.”

He paused and then continued, “I’m not proud of that story, but it’show we’ve always operated the firm.” Then he looked at me, “So, Peter,how do you change the culture of a company?”

He goes on to pinpoint a super valuable tool – stories:

We tend to conform to the behavior of the people around us. Which iswhat makes culture change particularly challenging because everyone isconforming to the current culture. Sometimes though, the problemcontains the solution.

“Stories.” I said to the head of the firm.

“Excuse me?” he responded.

“You change a culture with stories. Right now your stories are abouthow hard you work people. Like the woman you forced to work on herwedding day. You may not be proud of it, but it’s the story you tell.That story conveys your culture simply and reliably. And I’m certainyou’re not the only one who tells it. You can be sure the bride tellsit. And all her friends. If you want to change the culture, you have tochange the stories.”

I told him not to change the performance review system, the rewardspackages, the training programs. Don’t change anything. Not yet anyway.For now, just change the stories. For a while there will be adisconnect between the new stories and the entrenched systems promotingthe old culture. And that disconnect will create tension. Tension thatcan be harnessed to create mechanisms to support the new stories.

To start a culture change all we need to do is two simple things:

  1. Do dramatic story-worthy things that represent the culture we want to create. Then let other people tell stories about it.

  2. Find other people who do story-worthy things that represent the culture we want to create. Then tell stories about them.

For example, if you want to create a faster moving, lessperfectionist culture, instead of berating someone for sending an emailwithout proper capitalization, send out a memo with typos in it.

Or if you want managers and employees to communicate more effectively,stop checking your computer in the middle of a conversation every timethe new message sound beeps. Instead, put your computer to sleep whenthey walk in your office.

Or if you’re trying to create a more employee-focused culture, insteadof making the bride work on her wedding day, give her the week off.

We live by stories. We tell them, repeat them, listen to them carefully, and act in accordance with them.

We can change our stories and be changed by them.


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One response to “The Impact of a Good Story is Greater than the Effort to Tell It”

  1. Or, change the emphasis of your stories.His first story implied a company that didn’t CARE about its employees. Your suggestion showed that the emphasis on the work and not the worker was part of what made turnover so high.Honestly, who WOULD make sacrifices for a company that treats you like crap?

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