Are you sitting comfortably? …..then I’ll begin.
The month of May is National Share-A-Story Month (NSSM). This is an annual celebration of the power of storytelling. You might immediately wonder why this is relevant to the world of business. Stories are for children and indeed, much of the focus and inspiration of this initiative is aimed at children. But at 4and20million, we see that stories can be an invaluable business tool to supercharge the performance of people.
The theme for 2019 NSSM is Travelling Tales. This couldn’t be any more relevant for the stories a business needs to tell in order to unlock the full capabilities of its workforce.
A core motivational need of all human beings to unlock high performance is a deep understanding of “where are we headed?” We may think that stories are for children, but any business that isn’t telling the story of their journey to their people is missing out on one of the most powerful sources of motivation.
In his book ‘Crossing the Unknown Sea’, David Whyte beautifully articulates this;
“Companies need the contributing vitality of all the individuals who work for them in order to stay alive in the sea of changeability in which they find themselves. They must find a real way of asking people to bring these hidden heartfelt qualities to the workplace. A way that doesn’t make them feel manipulated or the subject of some 5 year plan.”
Stories inspire us to bring our best selves to work. Businesses that bring a group of people together and unite them behind a shared vision are able to tap into the full potential of each individual. Brilliant business stories make people feel connected to the group, feel part of something meaningful and give purpose to the effort we put in. We are all willing to give more if there is an inspiring reason to do so.
Stories are more powerful than facts. Fact.
Brain scans show the vast difference between telling your employees facts or stories. When we hear a fact, a few isolated areas of our brains light up as we simply translate the words and meaning. When we hear a story, however, our brain lights up like Las Vegas. Words, when used to create a story, become emotive, inspiring, meaningful and motivating. They drive us reach higher and give more; not because we are being told to do more, but because we choose to.
In his book ‘Drive’, Dan Pink says leaders need to “change their dialect to raise the human heart.”
He goes on to explain how the traditional types of staff motivation were rooted in “efficiency, advantage, value, focus, differentiation”.
The motivation of the future is rooted in purpose oriented language – “honour, truth, justice, love and beauty”.
Stories inspire us to be better
Today, there is more and more scientific research and evidence giving us greater understanding of what motivates us. But back in 1965, a Harvard psychologist named Robert Rosenthal created a glorious study to prove the effect a story can have on performance.
He approached a high school and asked if he could use his newly created Harvard test to identify high potential students. The school agreed and all students took his test. Teachers were then given names of children the test identified as students who were special. The teachers were told that even if these children hadn’t performed well in the past, the test indicated that they possessed “unusual potential for intellectual growth.” (The students weren’t informed of the results.)
At the end of the next year, the students were tested again to see how the high-potential students had performed. Exactly as the test predicted, the high-potential students were thriving. They were succeeding academically beyond their peers, scoring significantly higher IQ points, as well as being described as more curious and positive in the classroom.
Here’s the twist to the story - the Harvard test was complete rubbish. The students on the ‘high potential’ list had simply been selected at random. The fact that all of these students had achieved more in the year was nothing to do with their capabilities and everything to do with the story told to the teachers. The story of “these children are special and destined to succeed” inspired the teachers to do better. Rosenthal observed that the story motivated teachers to be kinder and more attentive, they provided more material for learning, they listened more carefully and they were more forgiving, giving the students the benefit of the doubt more.
The story inspired the teachers to behave differently which resulted in them being far better at their job. Their input enabled the students to thrive beyond the average.
Tell your story, then retell it, over and over
Leaders of businesses have a responsibility to their employees to ignite their passion. Leaders need to tell the story of the business journey over and over. This is where we are, this is where we are travelling together.
It’s not enough to pop this story half-heartedly in a staff handbook that’s handed out on day one. The story has to be part of the oxygen of the business. It has to consist of inspiring words that unite people to push forward together towards a shared destination.
Leaders spend more of their time thinking about the vision and goals of the business and so it’s easy for them to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone understands it as clearly as they do. Inc Mag asked CEOs of 600 companies to estimate the percentage of their staff who could name the company’s vision and goals. On average, the CEOs predicted 64% would be able to. When Inc Mag asked the employees, only 2% could name them. Leaders need to tell the story over and over and over. It needs to live and breathe across the workplace and within the daily life of the company.
Light the fire
Human beings aren’t naturally lazy. We all have a desire to pull our weight, to be a valuable member of the team. We all want to feel motivated and believe the work we do has meaning.
A seemingly simple story can unleash the enthusiasm, engagement and energy that is already there within us all, but is currently lying dormant.
Every business should invest time in understanding their story. Then they should tell it beautifully. Write it down. Say it out loud. Make it memorable, repeatable and enjoyable.
Stories are the connective thread that unite and inspire people. Time spent telling stories is time well spent.
So why not write yours today?