The Power of Stories
How do you keep your workers inspired, determined, and confident in the face of change, challenge and uncertainty?

One of the things you do—especially if you’re a business owner or senior level leader—is to tell stories.

Not just any story.

You need to tell the kind of stories that leaders at great companies like Ritz Carlton, Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, and FedEx tell.

They tell stories about the great things their employees do.

They tell stories about challenges they’ve overcome.

They tell stories about the ways they—the company—and they—the employees—are making a difference in the world.

How Could You NOT Get Inspired By This?

Here’s a classic example from FedEx lore that I just found in a great article by Dan Heath, co-author of Made To Stick, in his online article The Story Whisperer:

At FedEx, for instance, stories circulate about employees who’ve gone the extra mile for customers. One story concerns a driver in Manhattan whose truck broke down in the middle of her route. She called for a replacement van, but it was running late, so she started jogging around the city, trying to deliver the remaining packages on foot. Her progress was too slow, though — she wasn’t going to get her packages delivered on time. So she improvised. She flagged down a competitive firm’s delivery van and managed to persuade the driver to take her on her last few deliveries.

Doesn’t it just capture the “Can Do” attitude of FedEx employees? Imagine being a FedEx employee and hearing this story. Wouldn’t you feel just a little prouder to be part of such a group of winners? Wouldn’t you feel just a little more determined to be “that kind of person”?

This is the power of stories. They teach, they inspire, and they bring forth in others the very behaviors and attitudes they describe.

No PowerPoint presentation, pie chart, or business-speak laden pep talk captures the attention and enlivens the spirit like a story.

The Mysterious Power of Stories

As someone who used story-telling as a healing modality in a previous career and taught other mental health professionals how to do so, I can attest to the transformational power of story. I found that they stimulated perspective shifts—such as “There’s no way I could…” to “I know how I can…”—when more direct challenges to limiting beliefs had only resulted in greater resistance.

Stories are so powerful because—as the Heath’s note in their book Made to Stick—they offer both inspiration and simulation. I’m sure you get the “inspiration” part, but the “simulation” component is also critical. As therapeutic story-telling pioneer Dr. Milton Erickson taught, stories provide a non-threatening context for people to “try on” new ways of acting, responding, and viewing the world. Because they are “just a story” versus a direct confrontation or recommendation, listeners can temporarily suspend their “I could never do that” defenses.

Stories as “New Behavior Flight Simulators”

Because of this, and the fact that when you listen to a story well told, you feel like you’re having the experience of the protagonist, stories act as “New Behavior Flight Simulators”.

They consciously and subconsciously provide you with the chance to feel and perceive in ways that the protagonist does. They also provide you with new neural patterns of responses, just like Tiger Woods visualizing the golf ball flying perfectly “programs” his neurology to act in ways that make that happen in reality.

Thus, by having a collection of stories about your employees, or other people you know, acting in kind, generous, courageous, and innovative ways, it’s like walking around with a portable “Bring Out the Best in Employees Flight Simulator.”

Start Collecting Stories

One of the points Heath makes that might sound familiar if you’ve read any of my articles on onboarding is the importance of being what they call a Story Spotter and what I call being a Story Collecter.

Be on the lookout for things that happen in your organization that illustrate:

1. What a great organization you are.
2. How employee can make a difference.
3. Behaviors you would like everybody to emulate.
4. How much your customers love you.
5. Other teachable moments.

Then, write out what you saw and heard. Then, archive your stories in a search-able database and make them available to your leaders.

Smart leaders and smart employers use such stories to:

1. Communicate their Employer Brand.
2. Reinforce organizational values.
3. Provide a “Behavioral Vision” that clearly communicates what behavioral norms you wish people to demonstrate (e.g. what ways people can demonstrate helpfulness, show respect, etc.)
4. Inspire pride in new hire orientation.
5. Provide managers with inspiring, concrete examples of desired behaviors and attitudes they can use in their coaching sessions.
6. Keep employee morale high during difficult times.