Charley, a new retiree-greeter at Wal-Mart, just couldn’t seem to get to work on time. Every day he was 5, 10, 15 minutes late. But he was a good worker, really tidy, clean-shaven, sharp-minded and a real credit to the company and obviously demonstrating their “Mature Person Friendly” policies.
One day the boss called him into the office for a talk. “Charley, I have to tell you, I like your work ethic, you do a bang-up job when you finally get here; but your being late so often is quite bothersome.”
“Yes, I know boss, and I am working on it.”
“Well good, you are a team player. That’s what I like to hear”.
“Yes sir, I understand your concern and I will try harder”.
Seeming puzzled, the manager went on to comment, “I know you’re retired from the Armed Forces. What did they say to you there if you showed up in the morning late so often?”
The old man looked down at the floor, then smiled. He chuckled quietly, then said with a grin, “They usually saluted and said, Good morning, Admiral, can I get your coffee, sir?”
The questions I would like to ponder this month have to do with the people we work with every day. As an executive coach, I have the privilege of listening to stories to help leaders frame behavior and identify patterns as well as celebrate successes past, present and future. I have been thinking about the power of story that I believe the narrative above illustrates in a profound way.
- How much do you really know about the people you work with and the experiences they come through the door with every day?
- What systems do you have in place that support sharing and storytelling that go beyond the depth of a resume?
- In what ways can the power of story engage and ignite those around you?
- How much of your story have you shared?
The earliest humans told stories in caves to help them grapple with life and the struggle to survive. Stories bring to light our shared human experience by telling tales of the past and present in a way that helps us build an imagined future.
In pondering the leader questions above, I think it is important to look at the value of bringing story into the workplace.
Storytelling bridges understanding by placing the person at the center
Because stories are about our personal perspective on something that happened in our lives, by sharing them, others have a window into how we contextualize our experiences. If leaders have this kind of knowledge about those they lead, they have a fuller understanding of what meaningful contribution may look like for a team member.
Storytelling builds empathy
When someone shares a personal story, we are, for a moment, imagining what it was like for them as we walk through the chapters in their shoes. This is the foundation for empathy. The power of story lasts far beyond the act of telling in that leaders have a deeper sense of empathy for each individual and can build a more aligned team because of this awareness.
Storytelling is open to many truths
Often as leaders, there is a tendency to lean on objective truths. Creating space to share stories in the workplace demonstrates that you understand knowledge is continually changing based on new experiences and that it is organic and can be influenced by a new level of understanding of something or someone. Therefore, the power of story to inspire change comes not from the story itself, but from the elements of the story that resonate with the listeners.
Storytelling inspires reflection
Stories have been used for generations to communicate moral messages. The retelling of meaningful personal stories allows individuals to reflect on their core values and their orientation to their moral compass. This is a great way for a leader to align team members with what motivates and engages them to work for something greater than objective performance measures.
Storytelling highlights strengths and opportunities
One of the most powerful aspects of storytelling is that it is more effective than traditional teaching methods because it is invitational versus compulsory. Because stories are personal and based in real life experiences, they are easier for others to identify with and relate to. They make us human in the telling and retelling.
Some of the potential challenges to watch out for as a leader is that storytelling can be very subjective. It is important to beware of trying to control or drive the behavior of others through the use of story. Leaders run the risk of team members disengaging if they feel the story has a hidden agenda. It is also important to think about ethical issues and the coercive power of a story. It is called the art of storytelling because it is, in fact, an art and not everyone is good at it. It is important to also recognize that storytelling is historically word based and depending on any disabilities that may be present, different modalities should be made available. For the few challenges, there are many more rewards as you have seen if you have created the space for storytelling in the workplace.
When we build shared meaning with others through the telling of our stories, the story actually changes because the listener is now a part of the story and carries it forward in their own way. The shared experience is where the real power lies because new meanings emerge as the story unfolds. It can be argued that the art of telling, and listening to stories is at the heart of what it means to be human.
How human beings articulate their experience of the world and make sense of it is a part of leading every day. Whether we hear the stories of others or not, they are driving behavior.
Many years ago, while taking my final exam in graduate school, the question worth the most points was, “What is the janitor’s name you pass every day in the halls on the way to class?” I never forgot this question. Everyone has a story to share. Are you listening?
Please contact me if you would like me to send you the Superpower Exercise which is a great way to begin to create the safe space to introduce storytelling into your team culture.