Stories are the way Mankind has learned for most of its history. So why can they be so ineffective in the corporate setting?
Over the last decade or two, corporate storytelling has become an important factor in the way leaders communicate with their employees. It’s a wise trend. Stories have a particular ability to create empathy and convene experience. It’s not by accident they are probably the most successful teaching tool in the History of Mankind. Some studies tell us that stories can activate the parts of our brains that the actual experiences also activate — so through stories we can learn things that would be impossible or very costly to learn otherwise. In addition, they are very good at conveying the grey areas — that stuff that often eludes other ways by which we learn. And they can also be exciting, creating enthusiasm and engagement with unprecedented efficacy.
So, it is sometimes with surprise that leaders perceive their employees’ engagement and goodwill is not improved by their storytelling. Quite the opposite, sometimes leaders end up learning that their storytelling was received with cynicism and indifference. So why doesn’t storytelling work in Internal Communications?
1. Employees Know Their Leaders — Employees are not your usual audience, they simply know you too well. They know their leaders and they know their companies. They live with them about 40 hours a week. So, if you misrepresent even a tiny bit of your story, they’ll know. They will also be skeptical of your message and will filter it to its bare essentials. Unless you are very honest and humble in the way you tell the story, and it is coherent with what you do every day, you may get in trouble.
2. Employees Have Complex Relationships with Their Leaders — A leader-follower relationship is a complex one. There are always different points of view in every situation, and you may be sure that for every event you are narrating, different people who went through it have different interpretations. Some will see it as positive and others as negative whatever you do. The worst thing for a leader, though, is to assume the role of the protagonist. A leader that sees himself/herself as the protagonist of the team’s story will most likely generate bad feelings about it. The same thing if he/she assumes a certain employee as an example of good or bad behavior. Still, sometimes that’s exactly what is needed. Just be very careful about how and why you do it. My advice: clients or the whole team as protagonists are usually the safe bet.
3. Employees Hate Feeling They Are Being Manipulated — Employees are particularly sensitive about being manipulated for a myriad of reasons. One of them is the obsolete ‘School of Motivation’ that argues a leader should be able to ‘motivate’ his/her employees to become ‘more productive’. Stories are often ill-used: instead of being used to create empathy and share experiences and learning, they are used to support an ulterior motive — to get employees to think like their leaders. This is a losing strategy. The large majority of employees want to be productive and participate in the success of their organization. They hardly need to be lectured, they rather be shown what to do (which is also an illusory path — will talk about it some other time). The moral of many stories seems to prove their intent is to manipulate and, as so, they will be ineffective.
Storytelling is a tool. It is a powerful tool and a proven and useful tool. But, like any tool, it can be misused. Like most tools, it depends on the user to become effective. At the center of any story is always a Message. The coherence, the strength, and the sophistication of that Message could make all the difference.