The fact that people are wired to react so strongly to stories should motivate business leaders to develop their storytelling skills. But what business situations call for a story?
You might have guessed the answer—it depends. It depends on both the situation and what you’d like to accomplish in the situation. The situation might be a staff meeting where you’re introduced to the people on your new team, for example. As their new boss, your objective might be to get them to like and respect you and to start dismantling the barriers of mistrust and uncertainty.
Another situation might be that members of your team have lost enthusiasm for their work, and your objective is to restore their engagement and give them purpose, so they understand the “why” of what they’re spending most of their waking hours doing. Or maybe valuable members of your team feel unappreciated or don’t get the credit they deserve. In that situation, your objective may be to reinforce or highlight certain norms and behaviors with your stories and to draw positive attention to them.
Below are three types of stories that every leader should master. My hope is that they inspire readers to dig deeper into this topic and to identify and cultivate potential stories that can help you accomplish important objectives.
Stories we tell ourselves
We constantly assemble bits and pieces of information of what we observe around us and automatically turn them into stories that tend to reinforce our long-developed beliefs. If those stories are positive ones—you admire a colleague and tend particularly to notice the admirable things she does, or you pride yourself on your own punctuality and pat yourself on the back whenever you find yourself (again!) to be the first person to show up at a meeting—these perspectives are often uplifting and empowering.
The problem comes when we tell ourselves negative stories. For instance, if I feel that the people around me are lazy and incompetent, the stories I create will be based on morsels of data that confirm that belief. Or if I feel that I don’t measure up to others’ expectations, the stories I create will reinforce this self-assessment, prominently featuring my mistakes, my failures, and others’ expressions of disappointment in me. And so a vicious loop is created where negative perceptions—including of the self—determine the stories we tell ourselves, which in turn play out in full color to reinforce these perceptions.
Clearly these aren’t productive narratives, nor do they serve the people and organizations we lead. And while I’m aware that years of cognitive behavioral therapy may sometimes be the most effective solution to modify such beliefs-and-values–powered narratives, I’d like to suggest that we have the option to intervene any time we recognize (self-awareness!) the unproductive nature of the stories we tell ourselves.
It’s clear that the stories we tell ourselves have an impact not just on our own behavior, but also on our engagement with others and in turn on their perceptions of us as leaders, colleagues, and partners. By carefully examining our dominant narratives and making sure they contribute positive value to our and others’ lives, we’re one step closer to wielding real influence with the power of storytelling.
Stories we tell others about ourselves
Whether you are a leader joining a new team, or a job candidate in the first round of interviews, or someone meeting a potential new client for the first time, the stories you tell about yourself often set the tone for how the relationship will unfold, if it does, that is. Which are the right stories in such scenarios? It’s hard to go wrong with stories that illustrate your humility, good judgment, integrity, and expertise and experience. As for what to emphasize, putting yourself firmly into the shoes of your audience should provide clues. The needs and expectations of the people in your audience will, of course, vary, depending on the context of the meeting and their future goals as they involve you.
For instance, if you are the new boss meeting the members of your team for the first time, you know they’ll wonder about your leadership style and how you’ll treat them. Acknowledge this and share a personal story or two that show you empathize—maybe from when you met your boss for the first time. Mention the lessons you’ve learned in managing others and make sure to highlight any mistakes from which you’ve grown. Share examples of how you’ve navigated new cultures in the past—organizational or regional—and what you’re hoping to learn in this next stage with their help. This shows humility, humanizes you, and reduces the power distance that can hamper the open and honest dialogue that builds trust.
If your audience—whether a group or an individual—is looking to engage you for your expertise, share stories that illustrate how you’ve delivered results or solved similar problems for others. Mention the challenges you encountered along the way and how you met them successfully—even if it took a few attempts to get it right. This is also an elegant way to share your strengths without bragging about your accomplishments.
When others want to get to know us, they aren’t just looking for the content on our LinkedIn profile. They want to know the real us to determine whether we’re trustworthy and whether associating with us will be of positive or negative value to them. That’s why recruiters and hiring managers no longer have qualms about digging into our social media pro les and online musings to evaluate our reputation and our judgment.
And judgment is key whenever we share personal information. Faulty judgment can result in some awkward moments if not lasting reputational harm.
Faulty judgment in personal stories isn’t always this glaring. But if you are unsure of how your stories might land, run them first by people you trust. In the end, with personal stories less is more and humility is better.
Stories we tell our teams or organizations
The most successful leaders are able to tell compelling stories of the future, to articulate a vision—to both internal and external audiences. Leaders need to master another kind of story too—about organizational values.
Whatever the management goal, there are storytelling strategies that can help further it. A former Facebook director of engineering, Bobby Johnson, once saw the need for a cultural shift in the company’s infrastructure team. Although many of his engineers were drawn to exciting new projects and innovations, Johnson knew that other Facebook engineers, the ones who worked behind the scenes to ensure that the existing systems ran faster and better than before, also did critical work. He wanted to highlight these “unsung heroes,” both to honor them and to get more engineers interested in their less glamorous but nonetheless essential work. To accomplish this, he would take every opportunity—in one-on-ones, in meetings, and in group emails—to share stories of important fixes that these day-to-day engineers made and to publicly praise them.
Similarly, if you want people to speak up more in meetings and challenge each other, share a story of how a lone dissenting voice was able to change your mind about a decision you’d made, and how this wouldn’t have happened if the person hadn’t felt comfortable in challenging you. Or if you want to increase collaboration among teams, share a story about two teams who decided to join forces and whose combined creativity and brainpower led to important breakthroughs for the organization. And if it’s courage and risk taking you want to promote, highlight stories of risk-taking colleagues—and include their failures, to make the point that learning from mistakes is just another way forward.
As you can see in the three types of stories above, the formula for telling a story is simple. Decide which values you want to promote and which behaviors you want to encourage, and then make those traits the themes of your stories, and include characters who demonstrate the desired traits. Do these stories have to be true? It helps if they are, and it’s even better if your audience knows the protagonists. However, hypothetical scenarios can pack just as big a punch, as we’ve learned from neuroscience research and our own experiences from the myriad of stories that surround us.